Alina Cojocaru: Stepping into a fairy tale

Alina Cojocaru has rocketed from the corps of the Royal Ballet to principal roles in two years. Now, she tells Zoe Anderson, she is performing in a dream of a ballet - Cinderella
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Alina Cojocaru arrives with a tutu in one hand and a bottle of strawberry milkshake in the other. She is rushing between rehearsals, fitting in an interview and a photo session between learning Cinderella and preparation for a mixed bill.

The rush is characteristic. Cojocaru, born in Bucharest 22 years ago, trained in Kiev. She moved to the Royal from the Kiev Ballet in 1999, going from corps to principal in less than two years. She's learnt a huge repertory along the way. Under Ross Stretton, the Royal Ballet's last director, she danced so much and so often that there were fears of burn-out. Even reported injuries failed to slow her down. Under Monica Mason, Stretton's replacement, Cojocaru has danced a more balanced schedule, but she's still eager for new roles and to perform as much as she can.

The eagerness is very clear in conversation. Cojocaru is tiny, with a quiet voice and shy manner, and she gets carried away as she talks about her roles, quick to demonstrate gestures and expressions. At the end of the interview, she comes running back to make sure that I know my way out of the building.

Frederick Ashton's Cinderella is a new role for Cojocaru. She made her name in Symphonic Variations, another Ashton ballet, and she loves the range of his choreography. "If you look at The Dream and Symphonic Variations they're so completely different. But he always makes you feel very feminine, very..." She stops, considering her English words. "Very creature-like. Very alive."

Cinderella, made in 1948, was the first ever British three-act ballet. This is the Royal Ballet's fourth production of Ashton's choreography, with new set designs by Toer van Schayk and costumes by Christine Haworth. Getting the production right has already been tricky; Mason first commissioned Luisa Spinatelli, then found that her designs were too much like those she had already created for the Royal's recent Sleeping Beauty.

The ballet goes from pantomime kitchen scenes to the spiky classicism of the great ballroom dances. It's a wide range, I say. No more than other classical roles, she replies. "What about La Bayadère? At first we have drama, those dresses" - she gestures, miming the Indian costumes of the Petipa ballet - "and then the Shades scene," a classical setpiece with tutus. She loves the dramatic side of dancing, and looks forward to acting Cinders: "Especially in Act I, there are so many changes of mood, her memories of her mother. There's a lot to play with, it's not just the happy Cinderella."

Cojocaru always takes this dramatic approach. "It helps to remember the choreography by knowing the story, by knowing what's happening around you." Even in pure dance roles, she says, "I'm always trying to find a little story". She's just danced Christopher Wheeldon's Polyphonia, a plotless ballet. "Learning my solo, I was thinking steps, steps, steps. Arms! All those details. Then Christopher said, 'It's as if you're looking for him.' Since then, all through the solo I was looking for somebody. It made so much more sense to me."

Cinderella has comedy, too. In the summer break she danced The Lesson, Flemming Flindt's creepy-comic ballet about a teacher who murders his student, but she hasn't had much chance to be funny at Covent Garden. "And this time, I don't die at the end."

Much of the comedy concerns the heroine's ugly sisters, great male clown roles first danced by Ashton and Robert Helpmann. Helpmann's sister was bossy. Ashton's was meek and forgetful; the critic Edwin Denby called her "the shyest, the happiest, most innocent of monsters". The Ashton Sister's last moments were famously moving: in asking Cinderella's forgiveness, she accepted her own loneliness. They're important roles, and they're hard to cast. The Sisters can pull the ballet out of shape: in unfunny performances, you wonder why Prokofiev wrote so such a lot of music for them. Too many Sisters have gone over the top, gone for generic pratfalls over characterisation, lost the ballet's drama.

Cojocaru will be dancing with Anthony Dowell - who, as director of the Royal Ballet, promoted her to principal - and Wayne Sleep, fresh from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Both have considerable stage presence, though I will be interested to see whether they have enough restraint in these roles. The Ashton-Helpmann double act is so celebrated that it can overshadow accounts of the ballet. The Royal Opera House's advertisements show Cojocaru as the heroine, but place Sleep and Dowell prominently in the foreground.

Besides the drama and comedy, Ashton's Cinderella is a classical ballet with dazzling dances: for the heroine, for the courtiers, for the Season fairies and their retinue. The Seasons are introduced by the Fairy Godmother before Cinderella is sent to the ball, each Season dancing a brilliant classical solo. They all havecharacteristic steps - Spring's tucked-up jumps or Autumn's ports de bras - which reappear throughout the ballet. Those Season solos are influenced by the fairy variations of Petipa's The Sleeping Beauty. Ashton said he returned to Petipa "over everything": people would find him "at a matinee of The Sleeping Beauty, which I have seen literally hundreds of times. And they ask me what I'm doing, and I say, 'Having a private lesson.'"

Even so, Cinderella isn't serenely classical, like Petipa or like Ashton's own Symphonic Variations. Prokofiev's music is tuneful but sharp-edged, and Ashton's classicism matches it. The ballroom is magical but uncanny: dancers tilt off-balance, turn their backs to the audience, catch the urgent, hectic mood of the music.

The heroine's arrival at the ball, one of the story's great moments, becomes dreamily strange. Prokofiev wrote a long passage of rapt, hushed music, and Ashton uses it all for Cinderella's entrance. She meets her Prince's eye and falls in love only when the everyday ballroom music cuts back in. "It's her dream," says Cojocaru. "It's like the whole world is just waiting for her to appear. The way she comes down those stairs, barely breathing - it will be magical."

Yes, the stairs. Ashton asks his Cinderella to come down a flight of steps to the ballroom en pointe. Her Prince takes her hand to support her, but she doesn't actually look at him; she stays at a visionary distance. She could be his dream, the ball might be hers. It's a test of a ballerina's authority, and of her ability to make technical challenges expressive.

The ballet's weirdest moment is the stroke of midnight. Prokofiev sets the orchestra whirring, ticking, striking, mimicking the relentless workings of the clock. Onstage, the dancers around Cinderella become equally inhuman. Every time she tries to escape, her path is blocked - by the Season fairies who helped her on her way, by the courtiers who gazed in wonder as she descended those stairs. Again, they repeat steps from the ballet, and this time they do it implacably, as impersonal as time.

Then there's the question of dance style. Ashton was the Royal Ballet's founder choreographer, but his ballets have fallen out of the repertory since the 1980s; Cinderella hasn't been danced since the Royal Opera House reopened. Moreover, the Royal is now an international company; many of its dancers, like Cojocaru herself, were trained in different schools. They're no longer an automatically Ashtonian company, and they need to be sure of his lyrical, musical style.

Cojocaru describes the precision needed for Scènes de Ballet, made the year before Cinderella: "It's like when you have a box, and open it to see a dance. You expect to see perfect lines and angles, that's how it must be in the theatre." She demonstrates the carriage of the head, the line of the shoulders and the wrists, all of which must be just right. "You have to have the perfect lines to dance it."

As we finish talking, she goes back to Cinderella in the ballroom - again, to think about the drama. "For a while I was thinking about that entrance. How would she be so strong, to stand with the Prince like that? But she's a princess as well. Though she comes into the kitchen, with the rags she wears, she hasn't been there all her life. She used, years ago, to go to balls; she understands them. She's nervous, but she knows what to do."

'Cinderella', Royal Opera House, London WC2 (020-7304 4000; 23 December to 10 January