English National Ballet
Cinderella in the round
Streamed archive recording of June 2019 performance in the Royal Albert Hall. Relay 8 July 2020
Part of ENB’s #WednesdayWatchParty, #ENBatHome series
Christopher Wheeldon places great faith in the symbolic significance of trees: the scene-stealing one hung about with magical tokens in Act II of The Winter’s Tale and the benevolent one in his Cinderella, watching over the heroine’s progress from skivvy to bride. Young Cinders watered a sapling on her mother’s grave with her tears until it grew into a towering guardian spirit overhanging the ballet.
When English National Ballet transplanted its touring production of Wheeldon’s Cinderella into the Royal Albert Hall last year, the tree’s leafy crown had to be projected onto a curtain billowing out from the Hall’s grand organ. In the recording made just before the first night performance, the tree’s presence is hard to distinguish, so the nature myth element of Wheeldon’s conception is somewhat obscured. Though the many cameras in the vast hall couldn’t capture every aspect of the ballet, the recording gives a sense of the arena performance’s lavishly animated atmosphere.
Scene changes are effected by impressive video projections into the oval floor and the rear wall façade. Key pieces of scenery are wheeled in and around, including a mobile dining table for Cinders’ ill-assorted family. Four male Fates, wearing golden masks, voluminous black trousers and dark blue jerkins lift Cinders on and off the circling table, on pointe, as she serves porridge to her father, ghastly step-mother and step-sisters. It looks very precarious. The tiresome foursome are present throughout, assisting Cinders on her journey to find her prince.
He, too, has a back story as a discontented youth, in his case bullied by his royal parents. Prince Guillaume (Isaac Hernandez) has a confidante in Benjamin (Jeffrey Cirio), the son of the palace major domo (Michael Coleman). The two boys decide to swap places when delivering invitations to the all-important ball, when Guillaume must choose his bride. (Shades of Siegfried with Benno in Swan Lake.)
The appalling step-family fall for the deception, while Cinders (Alina Cojocaru) tends to a tramp who has come in for shelter. It’s Guillaume, though hard to spot unless you recognise the top hat he’s borrowed from Benjamin. The first ‘meet cute’ encounter between Cinders and the prince can be tricky enough to see in a theatre because so much is going on with the step-sisters. The recording brings their emotional connection to the fore when they stand together on the table, her feet resting on his as he teaches her how to waltz.
Wheeldon has woven a lot of narrative threads into his ballet spectacular. There’s the family dynamic between doting father (Fabian Reimar) and tyrant stepmother (Tamara Rojo); the two bitchy sisters, one, Clementine (Katja Khaniukova) nicer than the other, Edwina (Emma Hawes); and the unexpected love match between Clementine and Benjamin. In this scenario, taken from the Brothers Grimm rather than Charles Perrault, no Fairy Godmother holds the plot together. Instead, nature spirits, dancing to Prokofiev’s descriptive music for the four seasons, prepare Cinderella for the ball.
Now the ballet springs to life in the round, with brightly costumed dancers surging onto the dappled stage. The patterns they form are shot from above, as if viewed from the highest reaches of the Albert Hall’s tiers. From the main entry under the tree comes a troupe of strange figures with grotesque heads, followed by a flock of women dressed as birds. They and the four Fates dance busily to music Ashton reserved in his Cinderella for a ballabile of twinkling stars. The nature spirits vanish as Cinderella sets off on her big adventure in a make-believe carriage drawn by men with horses’ heads, with the silken train of her ball dress floating above her as she tours the stage. It’s a stunning coup de théâtre to end Act I.
Act II’s ballroom is also shot from above, showing numerous couples in blue and purple waltzing in formation on a dazzlingly patterned floor. Though Prokofiev overdid the repetitive waltzes in his 1940s score, Wheeldon makes good use of them for his mass effects, with some 90 dancers on stage at various times. The score has pungent, satirical passages to punctuate the pushy step-family’s antics, which verge on crude pantomime. Rojo’s Mme Hortensia does a drunken number with several glasses of wine; the step-sisters, capable of dancing perfectly well, fall over each other; Clementine, the one with glasses, is rescued by Benjamin, suddenly smitten by her in spite of his earlier mockery.
The waltzing has been interrupted by the appearance of three would-fiançées who appear to have absconded from Swan Lake‘s ballroom. Music has been appropriated from the Act III ‘around the world’ gallop in Prokofiev’s score in order to accommodate comically inauthentic ‘national’ dances. Originally choreographed in 2012 (for Dutch National Ballet’s co-production with San Francisco Ballet), they now look inappropriate as well as dated.
Cinderella is finally borne in by the four Fates to Prokofiev’s most romantic motif. But instead of being feted as the belle of the ball, she is shy and uncertain. The choreography reveals her vulnerability as she steps tentatively into this bewildering society. Unfortunately, the face mask she wears disfigures Cojocaru on camera and close-ups of her feet in gold-painted pointe shoes do her no favours. She dances so expressively, however, that such infelicities are soon overlooked.
Her re-connection with the prince becomes a dream courtship as she floats on air in his arms. Hernandez partners her reliably as they circle the stage, magically emptied of guests. (Exits have to be made up staircase aisles between banks of seats in the stalls.) He soars in virtuoso leaps while she spins in anticipation of the next breath-taking lift.
The guests rush back for yet more waltzing until a clock starts ticking ominously in the music. Its source is invisible in the recording. When and where was a deadline imposed for Cinderella? She flees, dropping a pointe shoe, as the ballroom darkens into a nightmare.
Act III starts impressively with a vast V of chairs occupied by characters from the previous acts passing the lost slipper between them. The scene changes to the family kitchen, where Cinders recalls the way she danced in the ballroom. The family, much the worse for wear, returns. Stepmother throws up into a bowl. When the shoe-testing starts, she is ready to smash daughter Edwina’s foot into a pulp to make it fit. With the aid of the Fates, Cinderella produces her golden shoe for an ecstatic reunion with the prince.
Instead of finishing there, Wheeldon expands the act to include other couples in a happy ending. Cinderella and Prince Guillaume have sealed their union by retiring under the totemic tree, before returning for yet more pas de deux. Benjamin has claimed Clementine, liberating her from her bullying sister. Every available dancer is now dressed in white for mass wedding celebrations. The spectacular ballet has almost lost track of Cinderella’s evolution from oppressed girl to fulfilled bride until Wheeldon brings back the focus on her in the final moments. She and her prince detach themselves from the crowd and stand together on their own as the music dies away – a lovely simple conclusion to a ballet that is more fable than a fairy story.
This, the last of ENB’s Watch Party streamings, was made available for 72 hours to keep the company in the public eye, and to raise money for its future and that of the Royal Albert Hall, in dire straits because of its closure during the pandemic. Let us hope that ways can be found to keep both institutions going while we wait and long for a return to live performances.