Cinderella, Royal Ballet | Dance reviews, news & interviews
Cinderella, Royal Ballet
Reviews of two casts in the Ashton classic - notably Alina Cojocaru and Sergei Polunin
No longer, it seems, need ballet's most transformable heroine languish by the seasonal fireside. It's true that you'll have to wait until Christmas to see the most visually striking Cinderella of all again - Ashley Page's fitfully ingenious Scottish Ballet version showcasing magical designs by Antony McDonald. But English National Ballet's Cinders is out and about this spring, and now Ashton's first full-length triumph returns with period glitter to Covent Garden. If in places it still feels like a winter panto - those drag sisters are maybe getting past their sell-by date - a ballerina of Alina Cojocaru's grace and charm makes it a touching and even at times a deeply emotional fantasy for all seasons [wrote David Nice on 10 April. Ismene Brown reviews a second cast below.]
Ashton's greatest gift to posterity here is the intricacy of the company numbers, weaving fairies and cavaliers, lilac-tutued allegories of the hours and 18th-century courtiers in a dazzling homage to the aristocrat of classical ballet, Petipa's Sleeping Beauty. And this is perhaps as it should be, for if Prokofiev's second full-length ballet score can't quite boast the range of Romeo and Juliet - the only equal to Tchaikovsky's unsurpassable masterpiece - it does serve entrenched Soviet conservatism with more divertissements. The one featuring foreign beauties pressing forward to fit the slipper has gone in Ashton's version, reducing the last act to a shorter running-time than the preceding interval - a shame, though the music perhaps isn't top-drawer Prokofiev - while the Act One variations of seasonal fairies in the Fairy Godmother's entourage is perhaps the least memorable quarter-hour of Ashton's choreography.
None of the fairies, not even Laura Morera's guiding spirit, made much of a mark here; the temporary star - as in the Scottish Ballet production - is the set, Toer van Schayk's painted flats sliding back as spring yields to summer, summer to autumn and - a glittering backdrop - autumn to winter. The tempi for languid Fairy Summer (Yuhui Choe) and precise Fairy Winter (Hikaru Kobayashi, making the most impact by virtue of the arm gestures) felt too slow, while conductor Pavel Sorokin didn't lift the livelier numbers enough - a disappointment after the spring and nuance of more natural Prokofievian Boris Gruzin.
That was a problem, too, for the pantomime-dame antics of stepsisters Wayne Sleep and Luke Heydon; more buoyancy in the pit would have given more energy to the dancers. Sleep is the squat sister, making a great deal out of reclining on her sister's uncomfortable breast, but also - working against Ashton's chararacterisations - the more dominant of the two. I've seen at least one half of this partnership work better with the consummate mime of Alastair Marriott.
The ball scene solves all problems. The sisters become implicated with two character cavaliers (Gary Avis and Michael Stojko, filling out the detail); the fairies get their own partners and trace more interesting patterns as part of the collective. Ashton makes Prokofiev's stack of court dances before the crucial meeting of Cinderella and her Prince pass in a flash. The truly virtuoso male role is that of the ubiquitous court jester, homage perhaps to the Sergeyev Swan Lake; Paul Kay made a charismatic impact here.
Rupert Pennefather's Prince shines in silver, a tall, handsome presence, though not fully suggestive of a young man lovestruck at first sight and not quite confident as yet in his leaping variation (maybe it was daunting to be perceived as taking the place of Cojocaru's regular and real-life partner, Johan Kobborg). Cojocaru, having had little to do but smile sweetly and mix pretty point-work with out-turned feet in her Act One dreaming, instantly conveys both the is-this-for-real? wonder and the perfect poise of Cinderella's star-struck arrival at the ball - a spellbinding moment framed by a frozen corps. As for the orchestra, it sounds best in the flat-out sonorities of the great waltz and the wide-spanning pas de deux. And, yes, we get both the pumpkin coach and the full drama of midnight, which Ismene Brown missed in the ENB version. Here, on a Saturday afternoon, children squealed with delight at the first and with terror at the second.
Grumble as I may have done about the last-act cuts and the unnecessary second interval - very unfashionable in the operatic world, where two-hour works can run continuously - the last 23 minutes certainly delivered all the goods. Musical-dramatic recaps were all succinctly presented, and Pennefather's sweetest triumph came on one knee, a moment of irresistible tenderness. In the pretty pictures of the apotheosis, the entire company, crowned by Cojocaru's poised radiance, reinforced the sense of time suspended. Old-fashioned indeed - but if the magic can still affect young and old alike, why tamper with it?
Ismene Brown reviews Sergei Polunin and Yuhui Choe:
When a 20-year-old bursts onto the stage like a prince inheriting his kingdom, something special has happened. In just one, unfair, single appearance in a junior-cast matinee of Cinderella yesterday, Sergei Polunin made the Covent Garden audience see stars. It was perhaps a little hard on his Cinderella, Yuhui Choe, also debuting in her lead role, that she, an exquisite dancer as she is, was left in the tail of this blazing comet.
Polunin has been eyecatching from the moment he joined from the Royal Ballet School two years ago, mature far beyond his years, with the profile of a leader of men, and the frown of a seriously thoughtful artist. I missed his debut as Prince Florimund in The Sleeping Beauty this season (pictured by Johan Persson), but this Ashton prince in Cinderella is a true test of talent. In essentially just three sequences - leading his court ball, meeting and duetting with Cinderella, and finally matching her - a chap must leave an indelible mark. And Polunin leaves images that burn in the memory - the way he exploded onto the stage in Act 2 like a star who had delayed his audience long enough, the reverent delicacy with which he treated Choe, the amused politeness with which he fended off the ugly stepsisters, the height of his leaps, and maybe most of all, the turn of his head and that fierce profile - this all speaks of a major young male star in British ballet, and one whom I’d urge you all to book up in anything.
This season he has showed a prodigiously commanding range - a dark dramatic presence in The Judas Tree, a dangerously elegant Benvolio, a fastidiously aristocratic Florestan among others, not one dud among them. The Ukraine-Royal Ballet connection has produced some wonderful alchemy recently, with Kiev-trained Alina Cojocaru and Ivan Putrov preceding Polunin, and this boy looks set for the highest achievements.
Choe certainly has the artistry to do the same, a butterfly lightness and extraordinary musicality that flows through her body, but she must learn to open her face more to the audience and show them Cinderella, dance louder than mezzo-piano con delicatezza, and take on that mystical extra glow of the ballerina. Yesterday she was fighting to be seen against the now brazen panto style of the two stepsisters (pictured by Bill Cooper), Alastair Marriott doing a fortissimo impression of Frances de la Tour, and Jonathan Howells starting sweetly as the “shy” sister but soon joining in the broad music-hall tone. Competing with them for come-to-the-Cabaret honours was the most 21st-century Jester I’ve seen yet, the lithe Fernando Montaño, made up to the nines and leering while he did his split jumps - not remotely fitting this cheap-looking Hallmark-cards production, but certainly provoking questions about the significance of Jesters in solitary Princes’ courts.
Francesca Filpi was a grave and lovely Fairy Godmother, making a tasteful gem of her one solo; of the seasons Elizabeth Harrod was a quick, effervescent Spring; Paul Kay and Gary Avis gave (as ever) excellent value as the Little and Large courtiers, José Martin’s Dancing Master was attractive, and the four Prince’s Friends were sharp as knives in their quartet. But it’s Polunin on whom the golden promises must shower; a deeply exciting prospect.
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