In a year of story-ballets The Australian Ballet has done well to reprise its 2013 production of a classical favourite, Cinderella. The production has appeal for all ages – as, apparently, does the basic premise: the “rags to riches” story is widely regarded as one of a handful of basic plots – and variations on “some day my prince will come” brings up millions of internet hits. The dream is still out there.
Choreographer Alexei Ratmansky’s credentials take in both the Bolshoi Ballet and the American Ballet Theatre – and Cinderella shows a happy marriage of these and other influences. Comparisons with Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake are inevitable, with both showing that this traditional art form can have a new meaning and excitement for 21st century audiences without denying the charm of older “chocolate-box” productions. Far from taking the magic out of this story, or changing its essential narrative, Ratmansky has re-imagined the details.
Prokofiev’s music for this ballet reputedly was intended to touch hearts and lift spirits. Thanks in large part to a superb performance by Orchestra Victoria, conducted by Nicolette Fraillon, it did this. The music also gave inspiration to the choreographer and designers as they drew on the art of the composer’s lifetime, including (occasionally) the surreal. There was not a mouse or a pumpkin in sight, but there was a recognisable and credible Fairy Godmother (Lynette Wills), albeit in the guise of a Nanny McPhee-type character. She brought with her enchanted representations of the planets, sun and moon. Their quite athletic dances gave the artists of the Australian Ballet a chance to shine from the first act, set against lighting and screen projections that were both beguiling and clever.
Character was established early and, as expected, the trio of stepmother and daughters were cruel relatives for Cinderella. But that they were more wickedly funny than simply wicked was established in early scenes with the hairdresser and dancing master, and as consistent as their colours (and shocking dress sense!) were to be right to the final Act. Cinderella herself was, of course, the heroine everyone loves – and on the night, Lana Jones excelled in acting as well as dancing. One of the satisfactions of this re-working of an old tale was to see the complexity of the Cinderella character: from the despair of being the household drudge whose mother’s memory was desecrated, to the happy girl at the ball and, of course, the loved and loving princess-to-be. Ty King-Wall made an ideal Prince, adding a youthful charm to the role which both lent authenticity to his attraction for our heroine, and explained his naivete about the fleshpots of the world outside his palace.
The ballroom scene, which traditionally allowed the leads to shine, did present some lovely waltzes and a pas de deux, but was hijacked by the stepmother and stepsisters as a number of partners were the targets of their flirtatious dances. The set was another winner in this Act, conventional perhaps, but pretty to look at, and workable, with soft drapes used to effect. The midnight chimes and Cinderella’s hasty exit was spectacularly realised – but it would be a spoiler to give details. It was back to the lighting and visual effects, including a backdrop with killer red heels, to suggest the Prince’s long journey throughout the world to find the owner of the glass slipper.
Then all too soon it was the final scene, back in Cinderella’s kitchen, with a final chance for the relatives to sport more crazy costumes and execute another manic dance. But, in defiance of big-production traditional ballets, the ending was simple: an extended pas de deux between Cinderella and her Prince. It was not just beautiful dancing, it was a reminder of the emotional core of this ballet. The triumph of love, the right girl winning the right heart – all celebrated by the look of the performance, the glorious sound and the dancing. Perfect.
Photo by Jeff Busby: Eloise Fryer and Ben Davis in Cinderella. The Australian Ballet 2015.