Queensland Ballet: Cinderella -
Optus Playhouse, 5 April -
With an unprecedented volume of advance publicity, including the announcement that the season had completely sold out, the Australian premiere of Ben Stevenson’s Cinderella was an eagerly anticipated event. As Li Cunxin’s first main stage offering since taking up the position of artistic director of Queensland Ballet (QB), it was a strategic choice to launch his tenure with this work.
Cinderella was Stevenson’s first completely original full-length ballet, its world premiere occurring in Washington DC in 1970. Originally mounted on a company of only 28 dancers the ballet is a perfect fit for QB and, forty-three years later, is as fresh as it ever must have been, imbued with all the magic Li promised. With the box office assured, luring philanthropic support with that magic must also be a priority for the company.
Stevenson’s take on the popular fairy tale is traditional and crisply told in three short acts. The choreography is fluid, seamlessly flowing from one section to the next and purely classic in its form. Stevenson draws heavily on the conventions of English pantomime in his narration and in the characterisation, en travesti, of the Ugly Sisters, who with the characters of the Mother and Father anchor much of the drama.
Paul Boyd (who retired from QB 10 years ago) and principal Matthew Lawrence are the short and tall of these silly rather than malicious stepsisters to Cinderella. Never once giving into the temptation to ‘camp it up’, both were totally believable in their gloriously grotesque, pink, over-the-top gowns; their solos at the ball also masterpieces of understated comedic buffoonery.
Adding to the weight of these seasoned performers, Janette Mulligan (former principal with English National Ballet and now QB ballet mistress) with a stabbing brittle manner, made a wonderfully callous stepmother. In the first act the comic interaction between these three and Joseph Stewart, as the hapless Father, was a master class in stagecraft by old hands.
There are three casts for the principal roles of Cinderella and the Prince with Meng Ningning and Hao Bin dancing opening night. Both these dancers have an impeccable classical line and stronger than ever dramatic presence. Meng captured the innocent, dreamy quality of Stevenson’s otherwise rather thinly sketched Cinderella, while Bin oozed princely charm. Their two glorious pas de deux, difficult because of the many off-centre lifts and controlled balances, effortlessly conveyed both the joy of falling in love and the recapturing of that love in the final apotheosis.
Clare Morehen was the Fairy Godmother who transports Cinderella to an enchanted glade where she receives the blessings of the fairies of Spring (Rachael Walsh), Summer (Lisa Edwards), Autumn (Tamara Hanton) and Winter (Katherine Rooke). The elegant Morehen, usually of a more restrained demeanour, radiated charm and warmth as she worked her magic for Cinderella.
In fact the company as a whole appeared energised; Yu Hui as the ubiquitous Jester in Act Two encapsulating it with a virtuosic display of split leaps and turns, while the very unified corps created beautiful patterns and sweeping formations in their ball scene waltz – the only section for the corps in the ballet.
Li commissioned new sets (Thomas Boyd) and costumes (Tracy Grant Lord) for the production, both adding a lavish opulence. Lighting designer David Walters, once again worked his magic over it all.
In the pit a truncated Queensland Symphony Orchestra, led by musical director Andrew Morelia, worked its own magic on the luscious, but challenging Prokofiev score, propelling the work fluidly from beginning to end.
Although there must be challenges ahead if Li is to realise all his ambitions for Queensland Ballet, this is a promising debut. Cinderella is a little gem!
– DENISE RICHARDSON
Top photo: Meng Ningning as Cinderella.