The Mariinsky concludes its run at Covent Garden with Cinderella, a sharp, funny and very modern take on the traditional story, made for them by Alexei Ratmansky in 2002. Although it still features a familiar narrative, with our charming heroine, a prince, a wicked stepmother and mean stepsisters, its backdrop veers from a glamorous 1930s Hollywood-style extravaganza for the ball scene to more modern settings for the prince’s journey in search of Cinderella.
Ratmansky was still learning his trade as a creator of three-act ballets when he made this work and there are some uncertainties of tone and an occasional lack of clarity in getting the narrative points over. But it remains consistently entertaining and well crafted with an endless flow of invention for both the protagonists and the corps. The soloists here in particular seem to relish their opportunity to get stuck into strongly characterised roles, and the company look energised. Vishneva as Cinderella has an endearing ability to share her happiness with the audience and casts a warm glow over the entire production.
Ratmansky’s most notable change is to substitute men as four ‘fates’ that watch over Cinderella rather than the traditional four female fairies. The fates are present from the start, perched up in the metal ladders that form the set. Hence it is not Cinderella’s kindness to the tramp lady that earns Cinderella her transformation and her white ball dress. The fates are there for her beforehand which rather undercuts the point. The fates are still season based and have classical attendants in tutus, but suffer from the worst of the costuming for this work, complete with outrageous hairpieces and painted faces. This is a distraction from their nicely-crafted solos.
There’s no obvious reference to preparing for a ball in the opening scene. We are introduced to Cinderella scrubbing and polishing, as the hairdressers fuss over her stepmother and stepsisters. Anastasia Petushkova as the stepmother wears a short red wig and predatory air. There’s perhaps a little bit of Joan Crawford in the mix: she wouldn’t look out of place in a Matthew Bourne production. The dance teacher arrives to teach the stepmother and stepsisters (Margarita Frolova and Ekaterina Ivannikova.) He is the very funny Yuri Smekalov, puffing his chest out arrogantly like some hunk from Strictly Come Dancing, irritated at the prospect of such unpromising pupils. The girls are convincing as dim, spoiled airheads, and have a lot of fun failing to get the hang of it at all.
There is no elaborate transformation scene or coach to take this Cinderella to the ball. It would not have suited the stripped-down approach. Vishneva is not a girlish Cinderella but she is warm and elegant, even when encumbered with droopy brown knitted legwarmers. Once in a white ball gown it’s as if she’s become her true self.
The ball in Act 2 is a very chic affair. It’s black tie and tails for the men, and white gloves. The women look more at home in their costumes than the men. The ladies of the corps wear long 1930s-style bias-cut gowns in shades ranging from orange and red through to purple. (These colours are very reminiscent of Ratmansky’s Concerto DSCH which appeared here earlier in the week and was the big hit of the season so far.) Ratmansky is adept at grouping and regrouping his forces, showing us the colour progression in the women’s skirts.
The prince, Konstantin Zverev, is in a white satin suit. Again this is a more modern prince: although he is polite and courteous he still looks like he might have seen the inside of a night club. Zverev looks relaxed and at home in the role (much more so than when he appeared earlier in the week as Armand). He’s a caring and supportive partner. The dances for him and Cinderella build up their mutual attraction and growing trust very tenderly. Vishneva communicates the mounting thrill of happiness very clearly.
The warning about returning before midnight was not clearly put across in Act 1, and references to it in Act 2 take the form of pointing at wristwatches which just doesn’t seem to work well. The wonderful ticking music as midnight approaches isn’t danced to at all which seems a pity. The detail about losing the slipper is hard to make out.
In Act 3 we see some of the prince’s journey’s around the world in search of the wearer of the slipper. Again the tone and period here sometimes seems uncertain. The prince is now wearing a red t-shirt and carrying a backpack for the slipper. He encounters a bunch of women in crop-tops and miniskirts who look like they might eat him for breakfast, and a group of men in hideous turquoise trousers. It was a relief when he finally made it to Cinderella’s family. Their final pas de deux is sweetly touching in that they are both now no longer glamorous and idealised figures. Cinderella is still in her grubby dress (though fortunately not the leg warmers) but it is this real, kind person that the prince has fallen for.
The production is new to London. Ratmansky’s narrative works (in particular The Bright Stream) have usually proved popular here and audiences, including this one, seem to like the particular mix of knockabout comedy and classical dance. Ratmansky reworked this ballet extensively when he remade it for the Australian Ballet. It’s not without its quirks but it was still very inventive and refreshing to see the company take on different challenges. It was also very pleasant to have an evening uninterrupted by long breaks for applause slowing down the action or curtain calls after each act.