The Royal Ballet's new production of Frederick Ashton's Cinderella is a strange experience. The choreography is all there, sharp and clear and meticulously danced. But the new designs surround the steps with fussy detail, and the dancing is sometimes more correct than grand. Ashton's dances draw you in, but the strange undercurrents of music and choreography aren't always there on stage.
The ballet, made in 1948, is a blend of sharp-edged classicism and pantomime comedy. Cinderella's Ugly Sisters are danced by men, originally by Ashton himself with Robert Helpmann. Their clowning is followed by the classicism of the Fairy and ballroom scenes. Was there ever a dreamier ballroom than Ashton's? A melancholy Jester leads court dances, and people keep turning their backs to the audience. The steps are classical, but ankles are crossed, wrists flicked, fingers spikily pointed.
Wendy Ellis Somes's production doesn't miss a detail. The dancers catch each twist of the wrist, every pointed accent. Ashton's sense of design is brilliantly clear in the Season variations, the wonderful layering of the ballroom dances.
The dancing is precise, but too much of it is small-scale - they get the wrists, but not always the power of the torso behind them. Everything is on the music, note for note, but those accents should do more to illuminate the musical phrase. Prokofiev's score can be urgent, glamorous and dark. Those qualities are there in Ashton's steps, but the Royal Ballet dance them rather politely.
Toer van Schayk's sets are naturalistic and very artificial. The Season divertissement is tinted chilly aquamarine and lurid russet. The drawing is slightly cartoony, insisting that you notice the use of perspective. The ballroom is all pillars and focal points, heavy and flimsy at once. Christine Haworth's costumes are messy with sugary detail. The Season fairies dance clearly, but they're cluttered by shaggy layers of skirts, curls and headdresses.
It's a pedantic production, spending its energies on trivial detail. When the Fairy Godmother as a beggar woman, the point should be Cinderella's kindness to the poor, not these sackcloth rags and palsied walks. Do we need to know, as van Schayk's sets tell us, that Cinderella's father has been selling his pictures?
Cinderella sets off in a coach, so Ellis Somes makes sure we see her arriving in it. This was, apparently, included in early performances, then dropped. We're better without a detail that spoils the heroine's great entrance. Footmen dither with carriage steps, then hang around making sure that Cinderella's ludicrously long cloak doesn't get caught on the coach door. Her descent of the ballroom stairs should be a radiant vision. I don't want flunkies and millinery to distract me from it.
Alina Cojocaru, in her debut as Cinderella, dances on a larger scale than the production around her. She has a sense of the whole role, building effects from one dance to the next. She's dancing more musically than before, though she tends to break her steps into individual phrases. She hasn't quite got the mystery of the ballroom, but she makes a warm-hearted heroine, directing her dances to Johan Kobborg's prince or watching the Ugly Sisters' antics with affection and some amusement. Kobborg dances and partners cleanly, taking care to respond to his heroine and his court.
Wayne Sleep and Anthony Dowell, the starry first-cast Sisters, have the stage sense to be charismatic, but they don't manage to be funny. Dowell maintains a sour-plum expression and weights every gesture with prissy care. Sleep is perky, with a little more spontaneity, but neither relaxes into fun.
With all this, the power of the ballet comes through. Individual soloists shine - Laura Morera's speedy Autumn fairy, Michael Stojko a soaring Jester at the matinee - and Ellis Somes's precision does give the dances their cumulative effect.
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