Cinderella: Royal Ballet; Birmingham Royal Ballet – review

Royal Opera House, London; Birmingham Hippodrome

The message of Cinderella is one of hope: that virtue will be rewarded, and that the darkest night will be followed by the dawn. Frederick Ashton's version for the Royal Ballet had its first performance in 1948, and it contains some of the most radiant choreography of his career. But with its very English blend of lyrical classicism and slapstick pantomime, it never quite acknowledges either the modernism or the mordancy of Prokoviev's score, which was composed in the grim war years following the German invasion of Russia.

The production delivers, of course, and with Marianela Nuñez in the title role, every fluid, nuanced inch the Ashtonian ballerina, there are moments when it touches the sublime. Yuhui Choe's Summer Fairy is blissful too, her upper body work a continuous interplay of subtle torsions, and her footwork cobweb-light. The Uglies, for years guilty of unbalancing the work with tiresome drag-queenery, have at last been reined in, and Gary Avis and Philip Mosley give performances of real wit and humanity. It's the production's designs, lurching from English baronial to orange-skied Maxfield Parrish-style neoclassicism, which betray the uncomfortable fit of the ballet's components. A ballet which hinges so insistently on the notion of passing time cannot credibly exist quite so far outside time.

If David Bintley's new production of Cinderella for Birmingham Royal Ballet never quite rises to the choreographic heights of Ashton's, it reconciles music, theme and design much more successfully. Bintley's Cinderella (Momoko Hirata) is a sad, etiolated slave eking out her existence in a rank basement kitchen. Her stepsisters Skinny and Dumpy (Dusty Button and Lei Zhao) are spiteful and inane. Barefoot for most of Act 1, Cinderella undergoes a magical makeover, and is transformed from downtrodden skivvy to pointe-shoed ballerina.

Like Ashton's production, Bintley's Cinderella makes the point that agents of change come in unexpected guises, but unlike Ashton, Bintley makes it clear that Perrault's tale cuts both ways. At the end of the ballet the prince (Alexander Campbell) rescues Cinderella from her greasy kitchen, but she, in her turn, rescues him from a court without love. Before her arrival we see the black-clad members of this court whirling in a danse infernale at the edge of a starry abyss, outside time.

Like all the ensemble set pieces, this is a triumph, with the four cavaliers (Atsuji, Monteith, Rodgers-Wilson, Singleton) delivering bravura dancing of exceptional elegance. Cinderella brings love, but also a ticking clock, for to be human is ultimately to die. And Prokoviev's music confirms this; you can hear the edge of sadness in the lovely final dance, in which the female corps de ballet dancers appear as the stars in the sky. Hirata is an enchanting Cinderella, with a secure technique and a beautiful, restrained line. But the real achievement is Bintley's, for uniting a 17th-century fairy tale and a bittersweet 20th-century score in a production of real emotional resonance.

Contributor

Luke Jennings

The GuardianTramp

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