Choreography Christopher Wheeldon, music Sergei Prokofiev, libretto Craig Lucas
English National Ballet
17 October - 19 October 2019; 2hr 35min, inc two intervals
Celebrating its 70th birthday, ENB arrives at the Palace with its first UK performances of Christopher Wheeldon’s Cinderella to be staged in the sort of traditional proscenium-arch theatre for which it was designed. A version was previously seen in-the-round at the Royal Albert Hall in the summer. Originally created for Dutch National Ballet in 2012 it is now a very handsome acquisition for ENB.
Though it will have huge family appeal, it’s far from being a pantomime, taking its cues from the Brothers Grimm rather than all that stuff with pumpkins and fairy godmothers. In fact it begins with with a pre-overture shock: parents are playing with their daughter in a gentle country setting, only to have the calm shattered when the mother coughs blood into her handkerchief. Cue Prokofiev's score, striking up with brooding strings. Quite an opening...
Unusually, and successfully, Craig Lucas’ libretto makes the ballet’s characters credible within the limits of the story. Combined with the choreography, the result is people on stage in a classical ballet you can actually engage with.
The stepsisters are quirky, comic and not too nasty. Clementine (Katja Khaniukova) is slightly sympathetic towards Cinderella, though stepmother Hortensia (ENB artistic director Tamara Rojo) is a nasty piece of work who often lashes out. The elder stepsister, Edwina (Alison McWhinney) is more frivolous and flirtatious.
Prince Guillaume (Joseph Caley) has a best friend from childhood, Benjamin (Jeffrey Cirio), and they do the usual place-swapping thing. The Prince arrives in Cinderella's household disguised as a beggar and is brought to the fireside by a feisty Cinderella (Erina Takahashi). The problems of this first act, where there is usually too much mime and movement and not much dance, have pretty much been solved as there’s far more story than usual, much less time in the kitchen and much the better for it.
Act 2 has the ball, and the final act has the coming together of the Prince and Cinders, pretty much as before. There is perhaps rather too much slapstick in the shoe-fitting scenes, but there’s plenty of magic to follow.
Coping with the wide range of tragic and comic elements in the piece is always a problem, but Wheeldon bridges them pretty well with his trademark neo-classical movement style, which tells so much, so eloquently.
The climactic pas de deux delivers intimacy and big gestures satisfyingly, and Takahashi and Caley fully demonstrate why they are the first night pairing, she almost ethereally fragile, he partnering with exquisite care.
The rest are pretty much impeccable, with Rojo, the boss, delivering an unashamedly scene-stealing cameo as an often very drunken stepmother.
The English National Ballet Philharmonic, under Gavin Sutherland, give an impressive account of one of the great ballet scores and the sets and costumes are pretty gobsmacking – traditional kitchen, woodland, ballroom locations but with an edge and clever projections. The forest tree and the blue-on-blue ballroom with festoons of chandeliers are particularly impressive.
Great stuff; just wish ENB came more often.