Cinderella, Sadler's Wells, London

You shall go to the ball! (In a pedal car)

Jenny Gilbert
Sunday 23 February 2003 01:00

The story of Cinderella crops up in a number of cultures, linking the worlds of Grimm and Perrault with ancient China and Persia and even sub-Saharan Africa. Like all universal commodities, the tale has been mined for different qualities to meet different ends.

The radical French choreographer Maguy Marin, while retaining Prokofiev's score, has tried to ignore previous interpretative baggage by turning the characters into dolls. Her Cinderella, made for Lyon Opera Ballet in 1985 and now a calling card for the company, is set entirely within a dolls' house whose sawdust-stuffed inhabitants wear chubby, porcelain-like masks. Yet the production is not aimed at children – rather, it takes childhood joys and fears as a metaphor for all adult human experience. Indeed there are times in Marin's ballet when metaphor is piled so thick that it reads like a Melanie Klein primer.

In Marin's world of universal childhood the palace ball is an orgy of playground pleasures and potential humiliations. There are giant lollipops for every guest (though the uglies snatch the biggest), dancing partners chosen on the basis of ip-dip-dip, and a skipping game in which Cinderella falls flat on her face (you guessed – her sisters are turning the rope).

Naturally, designer Monserrat Casanova goes to town on witty toy-cupboard detail. Instead of being advised by a fairy godmother, Cinderella gets a Star Wars-like hero brandishing a phallic glowing sceptre. In place of a chariot, she pootles to the ball in a miniature pedal car. At the palace, her sweet-faced Prince sits in a wooden high-chair throne.

The dance element of the production is somewhat harder to enjoy. Though Lyon Opera Ballet's dancers are trained in the classical style, Marin rejects its beauties of line and ballon in favour of a style she thinks more in keeping with dolly abilities. This results in much stiff-limbed, flat-footed movement beset with extreme spasms of gaucheness that can end noisily on the floor.

At first I saw this as a wasted opportunity, and I still think Marin could have allowed her love-birds to blossom in their ball duet. But as the production gradually drew me in to its odd enchantments I began to see the subtleties of her craft. Those inquisitive tilts of body and head spoke of a whole world of innocence and curiosity that ballet has refined from its language.

The ballet's chief effect comes from this gap of expectation and execution. Hearing the lush and sophisticated score (in a recording, alas), it's a shock to be watching its theatrical obverse – a stageful of ill-coordinated dummies. Yet the effect is finely calculated. Less well calculated is Marin's too-insistent interpolation of babies' gurglings – a kind of parallel music of the nursery, timed to coincide with Cinderella's glimpses of happiness. We took the point quite early on.

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