Has any choreographer ever had two ballets open on the same night, in the same city, danced by two separate companies? That distinction fell to Christopher Wheeldon, with his revised version of Cinderella premiering at the Royal Albert Hall while his one-act ballet, Bound To, opened the fourth and final programme in the San Francisco Ballet season at Sadler’s Wells. For good measure there was a third Wheeldon ballet being danced simultaneously in London, with the BalletBoyz performing Us at the Vaudeville Theatre.
This Cinderella is an adaptation of the proscenium production that Wheeldon made jointly for Dutch National and San Francisco Ballets and it revives English National Ballet’s summer tradition of performing in-the-round at The Royal Albert Hall, a stone’s throw from their soon-to-be-vacated HQ in Jay Mews.
Inevitably there are some compromises that must be made when trading off the fourth wall for a goldfish bowl; where choreography designed to be seen only from the front must be made to work when viewed from 360 degrees. Some effects were muted in this much-expanded sense of theatre; in particular the intimate significance of the benevolent spirit of Cinderella’s mother via the tree that grew over her grave was unclear. When Dutch National Ballet brought their production to the Coliseum, in 2015, Julian Crouch’s enormous tree was too large for the stage (and had to be pruned). Here the effect was replicated by projections on pleated curtains, which had a lesser impact.
Nonetheless, the net effect of these trade-offs was a positive balance: creating a spectacular show, full of colour, humour and romance, which – particularly if seated in the first few rows of the stalls – was close to an immersive experience. What better setting for a ball than a large oval-shaped ballroom full of exquisitely dressed dancers performing just in front of you. It felt as if we could get up and join them.
The transition at the end of Act 1 comes into its own in-the-round, with a mass of 40 dancers as the various seasonal spirits sent to aid Cinderella on her journey to the ball, and the memorable imagery of her carriage, magically achieved with just puppetry, wheels and flowing silk. Of necessity, much of Crouch’s original set design has had to be replaced by projections but Basil Twist’s eccentric puppet curiosities are still heavily imprinted onto an admirable design ethos.
Virtually the whole of ENB’s ensemble (minus a few principals) is required to populate this production and great credit must go to Wheeldon, his assistant, Jacqueline Barrett, their repetiteurs, the ENB staff and the dancers for achieving such a continuity of tight-knit discipline throughout the crowded scenes of Acts 1 and 2.
Alina Cojocaru performed the title role convincingly with a rich mix of fragility, stoic optimism and a thirst for romance. Her intelligent artistry is compelling, whatever the role, and the power of expression that she generates commands even this cavernous space. There is more of a back story for the Prince in Wheeldon’s narrative and Isaac Hernández gives the character similar depth in his journey from joker to jack of hearts. The romantic duets between Cinderella and Prince Guillaume are beautifully crafted by Wheeldon and were danced with captivating charm.
Tamara Rojo reinvented her role as The Red Queen from another of Wheeldon’s ballets (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland), by bringing the same gift of comic genius to her portrayal of Stepmother Hortense. Duplicity, spitefulness, anger and drunkenness were all essayed with a vivacious brio; even throwing up in a cooking pot was achieved in the manner of a Hollywood femme fatale! Fabian Reimair was her uxorious but henpecked husband, striving to maintain some dignity against all the odds.
Wheeldon has brought some old-fashioned English Pantomime humour to Cinderella, which is likely not to everyone’s taste in today’s climate, but it was harmless fun. The Prince’s dancing teacher, Madame Mansard (Laura Hussey) sports an enormous (false) cleavage; and the older stepsister (Emma Hawes) is a spoilt coquette with no morals and a bad case of halitosis. Katja Khaniukova was a delight as the bespectacled younger sister, Clementine, who empathises with Cinderella and enjoys her own charming romance with the Prince’s friend, Benjamin (Jeffrey Cirio). Amongst the supporting cast, there was a very welcome return, after a long lay-off through injury, for Fernando Bufalá, as the long-suffering King Albert. Although, for the most part unseen, Gavin Sutherland conducted the ENB Philharmonic in a jubilant performance of Prokofiev’s luscious score: for my money, the best full-length ballet music of the twentieth century.
We are currently blessed with dance in London (and not just with the collected works of Wheeldon) but nothing can compare to the spectacle of this in-the-round extravaganza.