tue 13/11/2018

Cinderella, Mariinsky Ballet, Royal Opera House | reviews, news & interviews

Cinderella, Mariinsky Ballet, Royal Opera House

Cinderella, Mariinsky Ballet, Royal Opera House

A brash, strident, but ultimately likeable close to the season

Nadezhda Batoeva as Cinderella and Vladimir Shklyarov as the Prince© Mariinsky Ballet/Natasha Razina

It sure feels like longer than three weeks since the Mariinsky rolled into town – at least if you’re one of London’s ballet fans. Non-balletomanes might be wondering whether the feverish intensity with which the company’s doings are followed, its form analysed, its health diagnosed, is disproportionate, a case of collective hysteria stoked by cultural stereotypes about Russians and the absence of other ballet offerings in late summer.

After all, most touring companies are seen for what they are, a collection of more or less good artists, under a more or less good artistic director with a more or less coherent vision. But the Mariinsky (and the Bolshoi, when it’s their turn) have to stand for the state of Russian cultural politics, the past, present and future of ballet, and their presence in town becomes as consuming as the Olympics to dance fans, who become temporarily conversant with the names of Mariinsky second soloists in the manner of football fans mugging up on Costa Rican goalkeepers during the World Cup.

Cinderella, with which the season closed on Saturday night, was a departure from all the carefully showcased heritage productions of the past few weeks. There is a lot that grates in this 2002 story ballet by Russian superstar and emigré choreographer Alexei Ratmansky, a lot that is brash or distasteful or downright ugly. Cinderella’s world is the backstage of some dingy, downmarket theatre, her father a bumbling alcoholic, her stepmother a brittle vamp, the stepsisters daft and deluded. Even the prince seems like a bit of a div before he meets Cinderella, posing and smirking like some vapid Z-list celebrity. Ilya Utkin and Evgeni Monakhov’s set designs feature two huge, black staircase gantries either side of the stage, and in the most egregious of a ballet full of egregious costumes, the four seasons fairies wear facepaint, cutaway leotards, and (later) MC Hammer pants, like fashion-challenged Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (pictured below left).

The four seasons fairies in Alexei Ratmansky's CinderellaYou might argue that Ratmansky’s scenario picks up on the harshness, the in-your-face bitterness in Prokofiev’s score, but that's a one-sided interpretation, and does a disservice to the loveliness of certain sections of the music (though it must be said that neither bitterness nor loveliness were given much of a chance by Alexei Repnikov’s mostly glutinous conducting on Saturday night). The choreography is wild, all overstatement, cross-currents, mockery and spikiness – lots of ungainly hopping on pointe, folk-pastiche silliness, and counter-intuitive twisting for the main couple in their pas de deux. It messes around with the grammar of ballet; strident, like the kind of feverish jazz improvisation that almost hurts your ears.

Despite all those objections, I actually like Ratmansky’s Cinderella overall. It has guts, and style, and on Saturday night it drew fabulous performances from Nadezhda Batoeva and Vladimir Shklyarov as Cinderella and the prince. Young Batoeva, still only a second soloist, is a quietly exciting dancer: she has a soubrette’s quickness in the feet, a pliant, graceful upper body in lyrical passages, and an expressive, likeable face. There’s not much character development over the course of the evening in her shy, eager, dreamy Cinderella, but she’s easily appealing and charismatic enough to get the audience rooting for her.

Shklyarov has already won hearts on this tour, and with reason – he’s a fine dancer, a chivalrous partner and a versatile actor. Here we see him tackle comedy with aplomb, checking out his own derrière in the “mirror” and rolling his eyes knowingly at the audience with perfect comic timing. For Batoeva’s Cinders he goes adorably gooey – with that expression (and that godawful white outfit) he could be in a Nineties boy band. He even manages to style out the one-shouldered rucksack with which Act III saddles him: evidence of acting skill indeed, since anyone even half as artistically sensitive as a Mariinsky principal would want to rip the vile thing from his back and burn it.

Ball guests in act II of Alexei Ratmansky's Cinderella for the Mariinsky BalletThe rest of the cast throw themselves commendably into their roles. Most exciting to watch are Margarita Frolova as Khudishka (the thin stepsister), whose clowning cannot disguise her grace, and Vasily Tkachenko as Spring. Tkachenko is a scene-stealer: fresh, potent, and musical, he’s clearly another of the boys to watch who have been such a feature of the Mariinsky’s tour this year. There is wonderful comic acting from the corps in the ballroom scene: Ratmansky’s frequently humorous choreography allowing them to come alive as a crowd of, essentially, dopey scenesters in evening dress (pictured above right).

It’s not Swan Lake – which apparently would sell out every night for three weeks if either the company or the promoters would agree to stage it (and they still do more performances of that than everything else by a long shot – nine, as compared to two or three for the mixed bills, and Cinderella). But it was good to to end the season with the Ratmansky – a vision of the new work which (like it or loathe it) a company needs to go into the future. The woman sitting next to me last night was a convert, telling me: “I hate ballet. But I love this.”

Showing young stars, and old legends; ruffling feathers, and being predictable; winning new audiences, and helping old fans fall in love all over again – that was the Mariinsky in London in 2014. Now, when are they coming back?

  • Information about cinema broadcasts of Mariinsky Theatre productions can be found here. The Royal Ballet autumn season begins with Manon on 26 September; details of other events at the Royal Opera House in September are listed here.

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