Dance review: Cinderella jitterbugs the night away

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The Independent Online
When you're famous for doing the unexpected, it gets mighty hard to spring new surprises. Matthew Bourne's Cinderella, his first show with his company AMP since the stupendously successful Swan Lake, had managed, against the odds, not to give too much away in advance. London in the Blitz. The lovely Sarah Wildor and real-life boyfriend Adam Cooper. A scooter and side-car going to the ball. That was it. So, as the first- night guests squeezed through the sandbagged foyers of the Piccadilly Theatre, covering their ears from the drone of Messerschmitts and sirens, it was less a question of whether Bourne could pull off another hit, more an eager curiosity as to how.

The great thing about AMP's modern takes on classic ballet scores (Nutcracker, Sylphide, Swan Lake) is that the main idea is never arbitrary. Bourne seems to get right under the skin of the music and let that suggest the treatment. Prokofiev finished the score to Cinderella in early 1945, and even its most glamorous waltzes have a brooding edginess. Perfectly suited, then, to a community desperate to keep up its spirits, flocking to the capital's dancehalls while bombs rained down all round.

Thus the ball Cinderella longs to attend is a do at London's Cafe de Paris, its courtiers and lords the brilliantined heroes of modern warfare. The sly twist Bourne brings to this set-up - which registers only after the clock has struck midnight - is that the poor girl has not actually been at the ball at all. It's a hallucination, brought on by the effects of a bomb blast sustained in the street outside, where she also manages to lose that shoe.

Typically loaded with visual detail, Bourne's opening scene lays the psychological ground-plan: the daughter of a crippled father suffering the step-family from hell. Mother (Lynn Seymour in black lips and wide perm) is a ringer for Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest - a creature whose smile could freeze a cocktail at 10 paces and whose vampish, sozzled walk means her hips arrive some time before the rest of her. There are two tarty sisters, their leering boyfriends, and some pretty unpleasant brothers as well, which means the stage is peppered with lively business, but risks being a bit of a melee. Wildor's Cinderella, a mousy little thing in horn-rims, keeps her head below the firing-line by reading film-star magazines. She's a girl who dreams in celluloid, and there lies the crux of the tale.

Those expecting a ballet may be surprised at having to wait nearly 20 minutes for the first big set dance. With each successive hit, this director's work has become more and more like a musical without the songs. His strengths lie in dramatic animation rather than pure choreography, though some of the dance can be inspired. There's a beautifully comic duet for Cinderella and a tailor's dummy, which her fervid imagination turns into Cooper's uniformed fighter pilot, lunging into sudden romantic clinches and swishing her wildly down the sweep of the stair-rail, Fred-and-Ginger style. Later, seeing the family jitterbug round the gramophone to Prokofiev, you remember about how clever Bourne is at fitting square pegs into round holes.

Yet not all has clarity and meaning. I loved the idea of William Kemp's strange mannekin of a guardian angel, but his long, semaphore-style solos looked suspiciously like padding. Likewise, the corps of gas-masked creatures in the street, whose movements suggested frogs or rabid dogs, but to no real consequence whatsoever.

Lez Brotherston's set is a marvel of mood and economy, encompassing family sitting-room, city street and ballroom under one great brooding bombed- out skyline. The last act even plumbs a convincing London Underground, where our hero, true to his office but wildly off-beam for a fairytale, has his way with a tart. Freed by dream from the constraints of humdrum likelihood, glum little Cinderella gets to look like Grace Kelly, seduce her man and dance passionately in her underwear, all from a hospital stretcher. A brilliant wheeze. And when convalescence does finally bring together shell-shocked airman and terminally timid girl, their inability even to look each other squarely in the eye is touching, funny and right.

So is it as good as AMP's Swan Lake? Not quite. For all its complex magnificence, Prokofiev's score has none of the soul-wrenching power of the Tchaikovsky. And in spite of Bourne's ingenuity, the treatment doesn't rise above being a familiar tale unfamiliarly told. That said, it has subtlety, bags of humour and ... yes ... even a few surprises.

The revival of the Royal Ballet's Giselle on Monday brought surprises of a less welcome kind. Peter Wright's highly traditional staging has been in the company's rep for years, so the dancers should be able to slip it on like a second skin by now. But the move to Labatt's Apollo with its wider, shallower stage has involved the kind of minor alterations a tailor might make to a jacket in an hour, but which for a three-act ballet mean hours of tedious rejigging.

Clearly, the current turnaround - Romeo and Juliet out on the Sunday, Giselle in on the Monday - is giving problems. Giselle's first night was marred by countless minor blips - a pas de six that narrowly missed a woodstack, a peasant whose pitchfork threatened to remove Giselle's cottage. But unease grew to alarm when Nicola Tranah, in the Queen of the Wilis' most demanding solo, slipped and fell slap on her back centre-stage, up- ended like a beetle.

This just doesn't happen to Royal Ballet soloists. Indeed, it turned out that the dancer's technique was never in doubt. The stage floor had become like a skating-rink, owing to rogue condensation caused by the dry-ice machine. Consequently the curtain came down, an apology was made, and after five minutes the show went on, sans dry ice, sans a flicker of anything amiss from Tranah, whose professional aplomb was quite astounding. However mortifying to those involved, it does the audience no harm at all to realise - with the shock of thudding bone and muscle - that these normally polished confections are indeed live, and thus prone to live error and injury. The completion of Tranah's solo was greeted with the warmest and most reverent applause Labatt's will hear in a long while. Behind the curtain, I am told, they were frantically mopping the floor with tissues.

AMP's 'Cinderella': Piccadilly Theatre, W1 (0171 369 1734).