David Bintley‘s new Cinderella for Birmingham Royal Ballet opens with a funeral: Cinderella’s mother has just died and we get a glimpse at the woman who is to become her stepmother. As she consoles Cinderella’s father her two daughters gaze at our young heroine. Fast forward many years and we see an older Cinderella now curled up in a grim kitchen, a dark and threatening backdrop cleverly designed by John Macfarlane to create the mood for a series of scenes in which the stepsisters and the despotic stepmother torment and abuse her.
For those familiar with Ashton’s 1948 version for the Royal Ballet the question was: how would David Bintley frame his Cinderella? Early on during the creative process Bintley had indicated he did not want his heroine to be overshadowed by the stepsisters (in Ashton’s version they are very prominent panto dames) so the first big difference here is that he characterises them as real bullies. They remain dancing parts and are used as effectively for drama as for comic-relief (watch closely for a homage to Ashton when they are dancing about in the kitchen after the ball in Act III), while the mean, cane-wielding stepmother (played by the amazing Marion Tait) and her benevolent opposite, the Fairy Godmother (Andrea Treddinick), are character parts.
On the matinée I attended Nao Sakuma gave a heartfelt performance as the barefoot heroine, fully conveying Cinderella’s suffering and unselfishness. She cherishes precious mementos of her mother, a photograph and a pair of shiny ballet slippers but is prepared to part with the latter to comfort the beggar woman who will, surely enough, turn out to be the Fairy Godmother. This is where the magic starts and we get the ultimate ballet makeover, complete with mice, lizards, pumpkins and silvery tutus followed by a big ballroom scene of lavish settings and beautiful dancing by the Birmingham corps.
A great strength in this production is Bintley’s knack for designing patterns and imagining steps for the ensemble. Contrastingly, the fairy variations and the main Pas de Deux are not quite as enthralling as in Ashton’s choreography. While lovely, the latter falls slightly short of the magic and wonder conveyed elsewhere in the ballet. It doesn’t help that Matthew Lawrence‘s elegant prince does not get much time in which to establish a rapport with his Cinderella, but the main issue here is that Bintley does not always connect steps to what Prokofiev’s score may suggest. In that sense his and Ashton’s versions seem like polar opposites, the Pas de Deux being the centerpiece in one; characterisation and atmosphere in the other.
At midnight enchantment fills the stage once more. A giant mechanical clock dominates the scene and Cinderella is soon back in rags at the dark kitchen, wondering if everything was a dream. But not for long, of course. The Prince returns to save her and the ballet ends with a dreamy Pas de Deux danced under the moonlight, in a scene that perfectly rounds off this atmospheric production. Even if this is not your definitive Cinderella, the magic touch of Bintley and Macfarlane is sure to wow audiences for many Christmases to come.
Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Cinderella continues at the Birmingham Hippodrome until 12 December 2010. Cinderella will also be performed at London’s Coliseum next year (March – April 2011).
Cinderella will also be broadcast on BBC2 on Christmas Day. Further information on the BBC website.