That Astaire feeling
GEPLAATST: 30-12-2012

Christopher Wheeldon’s Cinderella

 Even the great timeless ballets are subject to fashion. The stories remain the same, but audiences change. Sleeping Beauty, innately still and exquisitely classical, doesn’t seem to resonate with our current climate. Swan Lake seems to fare best these days in subversive stagings. Perhaps the ballets closest to our Zeitgeist are Giselle and Cinderella; the former dark and relentlessly tragic, while Cinderella moves towards the light. Both ballets are revenge stories.

 Somehow Cinderella appeals to the sensibilities of today’s young generation that grew up with Sex and the City and the internet. It’s an unfussy ballet about self-discovery, envy, glamour and the vindication of romantic attraction. There’s high romance, low comedy and beautiful dresses. I have never seen so many sixteen-year olds at a ballet show as at the Amsterdam premiere of the new big Cinderella, choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon.

 Sergei Prokofiev composed the Cinderella music during the war years for the Bolshoi and Kirov companies who each mounted their own productions, in 1945 and 1946. Wheeldon’s Cinderella is a co-production, too. The Dutch Nationale Ballet (HNB) premiered Cinderella in December 2012 and the San Francisco Ballet will present the American premiere in May 2013. The two companies share the costs for the elaborate costumes and set, and, of course, the choreographer and his staff. These co-productions are rapidly becoming the only viable model for financing new big classical ballet productions.

 Wheeldon’s Cinderella is up against formidable competition. In the western world the most pervasive Cinderella is Frederick Ashton’s 1947 version, with the two stepsisters danced by male dancers en travesti. Moira Shearer (of The Red Shoes), Margot Fonteyn, Antoinette Sibley and Alina Cojacaru have famously danced the title role. Ashton’s Cinderella was on the repertoire of the Amsterdam company during Wayne Eagling’s tenure as artistic director. I remember a particularly moving performance with Ruta Jezerskyte, the unusually versatile soloist from Latvia.

 As a dancer Wheeldon was trained at the Royal Ballet School and he knows the Ashton version inside out. There are some moments in the new Cinderella that pay homage with the quick, darting petit allegro steps that are Ashton’s trademark. There’s even an allusion to the twist moves Ashton put in his pas de quatre for a 1963 Swan Lake. And yet Wheeldon made an entirely different ballet, on a much grander scale, with a different, darker kind of imagination.

 Natasha Katz’s light design is spectacular, as are Daniel Brodie’s video projections. Basil Twist designed a tree growing on Cinderella’s mother’s grave, a tree of hope that at last embraces the entire stage. The costumes are amazing, though none is as beautiful as the simple blue dress Cinderella wears at home. There are dancing chestnuts, there is a couple of potatoes, four beautiful yellow birds with feathered tails and there are no fairies. Just like Alice in Wonderland, Wheeldon’s 2009 big ballet for the Royal Ballet, Cinderella is powerful visual spectacle.

 Ever since Ashton, Cinderella is unique in the ballet canon for its split of bawdy and ballerina prowess. It’s a challenging mix, and many performances go over the edge, milking the stepsisters’ vaudeville. In the new Cinderella the stepsisters are vying for the Prince’s attention, one pretty and vicious (Megan Zimny Gray), the other more a victim of circumstances (Nadia Yanowsky). The latter winds up with the Prince’s best friend (Remi Wortmeier). The problem with the stepsisters is, when you’ve seen one catfight you’ve seen them all.

Another gag running through Cinderella is booze. Cinderella’s stepmother (former Kirov-dancer Larissa Lezhnina) is a drunk, who interrupts the ballroom proceedings chasing glasses of wine. A third running gag is about boobs. HNB-veteran Jeanette Vondersaar shows up as a busybody with an enormous fake cleavage, while the nasty stepsister is constantly checking whether her boobs are okay.

Anna Tsygankova and Matthew Golding (photo Angela Sterling)

All about the waltz

 So what about the dance? Does it measure up to the visual and comedic onslaught? Like Swan Lake, Cinderella is a truly classical ballet in the way that ballet isn’t just the container. It is also the content. In both ballets the Prince, looking for love, only recognizes his true love when they dance (except in Swan Lake he’s mistaken). At the start of Wheeldon’s Cinderella the Prince disguises himself as a beggar and gets a bowl of soup from Cinderella. In the kitchen they dance tentatively. Just a few sweet bars of triple rhythm before she throws him out.

 Wheeldon’s Cinderella is all about the waltz. At the ball the big waltz never really takes off. Couples start and stop and start again, distracted. Their bodies are out of tune. Before all the guests move outside, at the back of the stage, to watch the fireworks against the dawn sky, the Prince and the masked Cinderella take the stage and prelude the big duet, gently circling each other to the waltz music. It’s as if they’re tuning in to each other’s rhythm again. It’s a beautiful idea, giving this ballet that Astaire feeling.

 Another part of the pas de deux’ success is its modesty. Often today’s classical choreographers throw every move they know at the pas de deux, whipping the ballerina across the stage. It’s meant to be the climax. Wheeldon doesn’t push it. Cinderella’s solo variation is almost a palimpsest of Ashton’s, so quiet, and yet it’s totally different. Facing upstage she puts her left hand behind her back. And then the other hand. She's hiding something. It's a simple gesture, something that may just have happened in the studio, but it’s magic. The Prince’s variation is not a macho showpiece. He’s a modern guy. When he he holds Cinderella, he doesn’t just spread his arms to display her. He bends backwards because he’s overwhelmed.

 In Amsterdam Cinderella was premiered by Anna Tsygankova and Matthew Golding, who are also going to be the soloists in the DVD. Tsygankova is a dramatic dancer. People in the audience gasp when she enters, and usually I’m one of them. I’m just not sure that Tsygankova is the ideal dancer for Cinderella. Obviously, Wheeldon thought differently. Perhaps he did because originally the plan was to make Cinderella a more defiant stepdaughter, with a hint of Don Quichote's Kitri.

 Jurgita Dronina, who danced her first performance fairly late in the series has the lyrical lines and the quietness to make Cinderella a character that keeps us engaged, all the way to the simple wedding ceremony under the hope tree, without us ever wondering why she doesn’t just walk away from all her humiliations. James Stout, Dronina’s partner, is a classic prince, strong, handsome and exemplary. Matthew Golding has a better sense of Cinderella’s comedy. Remi Wörtmeyer, the prince’s best friend, is a wonderful dancer who needs to be seen more often.

 Of all the big new story ballets I have seen thus far this century Christopher Wheeldon’s Cinderella is by far the most accomplished and urgent, in its confident and beguiling use of the classical vocabulary, in its narrative vision and in details like the way Cinderella steps on the dinner table, mesmerized, to get the golden slipper that will deliver her to the Prince. I can’t wait to see it again in San Francisco.

 December 29, 2012

Updated January 3, 2013