In no particular order, our highlights from Christopher Wheeldon’s Cinderella, which we were lucky to catch earlier this month. Thank you, Dutch National Ballet, for bringing it to London!
1) Costumes and Designs
As Wheeldon had already proven with Alice’s Adventures, he knows how to commission eye-popping design. Pairing up with Julian Crouch, the production team has created magnificent costumes, like Cinderella’s delicate ball gown that hints at both nature (leaves) and royalty (golden), plus colourful designs for each of “the four seasons”. We also loved how they staged the initial scene in Act 3: exquisitely-dressed princesses from around the world (even an ogress!) play “musical chairs” while trying on the glass slippers, a clever use of the proscenium space that made the audience swoon audibly.
2) English Masters
At different stages in the ballet, we see Wheeldon pay homage to Ashton and MacMillan. We have the prince’s nurse, who seems to channel Ashton’s panto stepsisters, but in a more acceptable way (personally, we think Ashton misfired big with these two characters). Did we also pick up some MacMillan Easter eggs? We noticed umbrellas during Cinderella’s mother’s funeral (as in Mayerling), plus a funny drunken solo for the stepmother (Manon).
3) Fluid Dances
Leave it to Wheeldon to always keep things moving! He explored this fluidity of movement to great effect in the “four seasons” scene (just before the ball) as the music rises. However, we do wonder whether he is too much in a hurry at times, especially as the ball scene unfolds (ok, the clock is ticking…). With the exception of some elaborate lifts and the above-mentioned drunken solo, there were not many big, sweeping moments in the choreography here. For that, Wheeldon leaves us hanging until the Act III pas de deux, when we find some tender, lovely moments between the prince and Cinderella.
4) Theatrical Magic
Wheeldon has made a trio of ballets that could easily be translated into West End productions. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, The Winter’s Tale and Cinderella all share common ground: gorgeous productions with fabulous stagecraft (unsurprisingly, Wheeldon has just bagged a Tony award with An American in Paris).
This Cinderella has one of the most gorgeous transformation scenes we have ever seen in ballet: puppeteer Basil Twist has managed to conjure Cinderella’s carriage out of thin air, in a scene that takes place underneath the lush canopy of a tree that represents motherly love. Spinning branches become the wheels, with the fates (wearing horses’s heads) pulling it forward, while Cinderella’s swirling cape gives it shape. A breathtaking coup de théâtre.
5) Smart Decisions
No fairies, no super annoying stepsisters, less pantomime, and characters that are more proactive than reactive: we never see Cinderella reduced to a sobbing, helpless mess. These are sound decisions that make the story feel more relevant to today’s audiences. Wheeldon also explores the idea of a mother looking after her child beyond the grave (the fertile tree) as a replacement for the usual godmother, and gives us a modern version of a Prince. Not all of his changes make sense to us (for instance, a scene where young Cinders rejects a bouquet presented by the stepsisters) but, in general, they help make this Cinderella a more grown-up ballet.
6) The Prince
Cinderella productions traditionally wait until the ballroom scene in Act II to introduce us to the Prince. As that leaves next to no time to develop his character, we learn nothing about him: he’s just an elegant nobleman. Moreover, the central pas de deux often becomes the only opportunity to establish a romantic connection between Cinders and her prince (ok, Ashton nailed this one!). But Wheeldon and his collaborator Craig Lucas decided to change things around, giving Prince Guillaume a backstory, complete with a Mercutio-like friend (Benjamin) and an early encounter with Cinders à la Parent Trap. The result? a Prince that we can actually root for.