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The Australian Ballet production is Alexei Ratmansky’s second “Cinderella” – in 2002 he was commissioned by the Mariinsky Theatre to refresh Prokofiev’s fairytale, which he did with some success. Thirteen years on, the ballet is still in Mariinsky’s repertoire, but the “Cinderella” currently delighting Australian audiences is a significant divergence from Ratmansky’s original production.
Cinderella: Ako Kondo
Prince: Chengwu Guo
Evil Stepmother: Jasmin Durham
Dumpy Stepsister: Heidi Martin
Skinny Stepsister: Lisa Craig
The Fairy Godmother: Nicola Curry
|Choreography: Alexei Ratmansky
Music: Sergei Prokofiev
Costume and set design: Jérôme Kaplan
Original lighting design: Rachel Burke
Projection design: Wendall K Harrington
Delightful. If you ever have a chance to see it, please do. I had a smile on my face pretty much the entire time. The cast outdid themselves, bringing infectious energy and humour. Any complaints I have (outlined below), have mostly to do with the design of the production.
Lisa Craig’s Skinny Stepsister attempting to pirouette at the ball was the highlight of the day for me. I didn’t expect to be moved as much as I was by Cinderella’s flight from the ball. My heart broke a little when the Prince looked directly at Cinderella and didn’t recognise her.
Prokofiev completed the score for “Cinderella” in 1944. Within two years both Bolshoi and Kirov had mounted full-scale productions, and in 1948 Fredrick Ashton followed suite, staging Britain’s first three-act ballet. Other significant “Cinderella” productions include Rudolf Nureyev’s version for Paris Opera Ballet, Matthew Bourne’s production (set in the London Blitz), and Michael Corder’s staging for English National Ballet and Boston Ballet.
Characters and Dancers
I attended the matinee performance on Saturday the 20th, with Ako Kondo and Chengwu Guo debuting as Cinderella and the Prince. I’ve seen them once before in “Giselle” and thought that they had a wonderful chemistry.
Ako Kondo’s natural charm and expressiveness made her a perfect fit for the role. She charmed me, moved me and even made me tear up (not an easy feat). Her Cinderella was delicate, hopeful and adventurous. I could go on about Kondo at length, but I will simply say that she was perfect and leave it at that.
Little sidenote: I was delighted to see that Ratmansky left Cinderella’s solo in Act I, where she imagines herself dancing at the ball, untouched. I love the choreography (and the music) of this little piece so much, and Kondo did it justice, though her footwork wasn’t nearly as fleet as Diana Vishneva’s (see a little example below). Yes, I realize that comparing any ballerina, however brilliant, to Vishneva is unfair, but I can’t help it.
As the Prince covered the whole stage in a series of gravity-defying leaps as he entered the ballroom in Act II, I couldn’t help but marvel at Chengwu Guo’s remarkable energy. Unlike the inhabitants of his court, the Prince is noble and eloquent. It wasn’t the dress that attracted him to Cinderella, but the fact that he recognised a kindred spirit. Chengwu Guo’s Prince is a nobleman and a gentleman, and it wasn’t surprising that he managed to keep his head in the game and his virtue intact during his lengthy round-the-world search for Cinderella.
It would have been so easy to paint the stepsisters as evil, but you can’t hate Skinny and Dumpy. They are, in their own way, very endearing. I was rooting for them.
I do have a problem with the Stepmother though. This is no fault of Jasmine Durham’s – she gave it her all and brought the house down. I am going to blame Ratmansky and Kaplan for this one. The character is indistinguishable from her two daughters (both in appearance and character) – most of the time she can be mistaken for an older sister, but while Skinny and Dumpy worked well as a dynamic duo, Stepmother appeared out of the place and over the top.
Cinderella’s interaction with her Father – a drunk, broken man, mourning his late wife (played by Matthew Donnelly) – at the start of Act I added an interesting dynamic to the story. Kondo expressed her character’s frustration with her father and her unrelenting affection for him wonderfully well. It’s frustrating that the finale brings no real resolution for this character. As the man stumbles off the stage, bottle in hand, at the end of Act III, you’re left wondering what exactly was the point.
I am not a huge fan of Jérôme Kaplan’s designs. His costumes are comical and lack the elegance and charm of Elena Markovskaya’s designs from the original Mariinsky production (below, right). Cinderella blends into the background in her mousy grey dress. Markovskaya’s original design may be quirky, but it reflected Cinderella’s character and warmth.
While I still find Markovskaya’s minimalist design of Cinderella’s gown refreshing and elegant, there’s no denying that Kaplan’s Dior-inspired gown is stunning. It lived a shimmering life of its own, moving beautifully during the pas de deux in the palace garden.
While Kaplan’s design is a great improvement on the original Mariinsky set, I had a feeling that the topsy-turvy, surrealist world he conjured up would have been more appropriate for “Alice in Wonderland”. The hedges-turned-metronomes really sealed the deal.
The ballroom, which Kaplan based on the Malachite Room (above), was impressive and grand, but it dwarfed the Arts Centre’s already modest-sized stage – a stage I’ve seen made appear cavernous by set design in other productions. Transitions between the sets – especially between the ballroom and Cinderella’s kitchen – were accomplished with an impressive smoothness (put me in mind of Ratmansky’s “Anna Karenina”).
Projection design worked well in Act I but got progressively more heavy-handed as the ballet went on. My graphic designer’s sensibilities were in revolt at the end of Act II and throughout the Prince’s journey in Act III. Given the scale of the production and the effort put into set design, the projected illustrations should have been a lot better. Especially since Kaplan’s choice of surrealism as the overall theme of the production demanded something a lot more polished.
Bonus: Here are Bolshoi’s 1961 “Cinderella” with Raisa Struchkova, Gennadi Lediakh, and Ekaterina Maximova and Mariinsky’s original production of Ratmansky’s “Cinderella” with Diana Vishneva for your viewing pleasure.