The choreography is crisp but the staging resembles one of those weird American candy shops that infest Oxford Street
The Ugly Sisters didn’t spark, despite everyone’s best efforts – memories of Ashton and Robert Helpmann as this pair of misfits are still so vivid. Image: Tristram Kenton
Despite its widespread rating as one of his masterpieces, Frederick Ashton’s Cinderella is chock full of knots, gaps and stumbling blocks – all of which the Royal Ballet’s new production throws into relief. Ashton isn’t altogether to blame: Prokofiev’s graphic score dictates an excessive amount of time given over to knockabout for the Ugly Sisters (mostly a matter of them bumping into each other) and a tiresome court jester. There’s nothing to be done with an inert third act, which in Ashton’s treatment merely recapitulates previous choreography and ends with a static tableau. The Prince has no personality whatsoever: he’s little more than a handsome porter.
Yet genius shines through. Created in 1948, in the wake of the flawless Symphonic Variations and Scènes de Ballet, Cinderella offers rich pickings: a title role that a succession of great ballerinas – Shearer, Fonteyn, Beriosova, Sibley – has inhabited with winsome charm; a series of exquisitely subtle variations representing the four seasons; and some superb neoclassical sequences for the corps, reflective of a fascination with Euclidean geometry. One has only to compare Nureyev’s or Ratmansky’s or Wheeldon’s versions to appreciate Ashton’s profound artistry.
Over its 75-year life, Ashton’s Cinderella has received several redesigns as well as some choreographic tweaks. It remains a problem child, with protective parents. Ashton bequeathed the rights to the first Prince, Michael Somes, who in turn passed them to his widow Wendy Ellis, herself a Cinderella of note. Ellis Somes has mounted a number of stagings across the world since 1992 and has definite ideas about what and who she wants and doesn’t want: negotiating with her is a sensitive business.
Her previous production of Cinderella for the Royal Ballet was panned and revived only once. This time round she has collaborated with ballet master Gary Avis and a team of designers led by Tom Pye (sets) and Alexandra Byrne (costumes). The result is a show aimed at the CGI generation, as luridly coloured as those weird American candy shops that infest Oxford Street and ‘enhanced’ by digital effects, fancy lighting and magic illusions.
If you enjoyed Wicked, you’ll love this. Yet something of Ashton’s gentle romanticism has been sacrificed along the way – and although the first act in Cinderella’s kitchen works well enough, the second act now looks distressingly vulgar and cramped. I can see no advantage in moving the ballroom to a terrace en plein air outside a hideous chateau, and there is too much fussed-up costuming.
But the choreography is honoured, and crisply rehearsed. I can report on two casts. Marianela Nunez made an impeccable Cinderella, offering diamantine footwork and elegant line, even if neither she nor her prince Vadim Muntagirov communicated any discernible emotion. Yasmine Naghdi brought more thrilling grandeur to the central pas de deux, strongly partnered by the highly intelligent Matthew Ball, who managed to make the Prince a little more real than Muntagirov’s cardboard cutout.
Fumi Kaneko and Mayara Magri were warmly benign Fairy Godmothers, and all the seasonal variations were stylishly done: my shout-out would go to Annette Buvoli’s regally chilly Winter. Nor could I resist Joonhyuk Jun as a hyperactive jester apparently modelled on Batman’s Joker, his playfulness verging on the psychotic. Bonkers perhaps, but a welcome dash of acidic venom in otherwise sugar-heavy confectionery.
The Ugly Sisters didn’t spark, despite everyone’s best efforts. Memories of Ashton and Robert Helpmann as this pair of misfits are still so vivid (and commemorated on a DVD recording), but you can’t just mimic their mimicry. Luca Acri, a super dancer, was miscast as the sibling whom Ashton so poignantly made fat, clumsy, hopeless and a loser, while Thomas Whitehead and Gary Avis never suggested Helpmann’s edge of downright nastiness. Female couples are also taking these roles on – they might do something more interesting.
The company is currently in great shape, and I’m sure that all these performances will develop over the run. I should also offer a final bravo for Koen Kessels,who conducts the orchestra in a splendid account of the score. But this is a show that is always going to be bigger on spectacle than on heart.