Arts Centre Melbourne, State Theatre, 19 March
It must be a challenge to re-enliven an often-told tale that is so familiar and loved. Alexei Ratmansky’s 2013 re-casting of Cinderella for The Australian Ballet certainly challenges some of the traditional tellings but in doing so risks becoming a little too tricksy and self-conscious.
Ratmansky’s Cinderella is a fairy tale in the pantomime tradition embracing the obligatory high-camp comedy of the genre. Where it succeeds most, indeed, is in the portrayal of the step family. Breaking with tradition and casting women as the sisters and mother gives an expanded balletic range to the choreography. Setting their roles en pointe further allows the dancers to fall in and out of ridiculousness while showing their accomplished technique. In contrast, versions that adhere to the pantomime convention of casting men in these roles rely on an assumption that men in drag are inherently entertaining and hilarious, which I think we have outgrown. Dana Stephensen, as the stepmother, showed her mettle early, in a frenzied solo that leaves her character in an exhausted heap. The sisters’ characters are nicely differentiated and channel silly haplessness rather than malice. In the roles, Jill Ogai and Ingrid Gow had great fun cavorting and hamming it up in their quest to outdo each other for the Prince’s attention.
This Cinderella is no sugary affair and is likeable for pulling back on the over-blown romance usually associated with the fairy tale. In some senses, I don’t miss the traditional Fairy Godmother, all a-glitter and ethereally perfect. However, I am not sure that the drab-coated, prosthetic-nosed stranger is quite the replacement needed. For a start, in reducing it to a pure character part, the chance is missed to attach some dance to the role. Frederick Ashton’s Fairy Godmother, by contrast, is a calmly dignified presence, and more believable as a magical entity. The poised and beautiful choreography for her is a long way from Ratmansky’s Godmother figure, who seems to be merely a plot device.
The Planets and Stars that inexplicably magic Cinderella to the ball are an audacious but very busy affair. Nonetheless, there are many striking moments in the choreography for the Planets and opportunities for the dancers to shine within this quirky interlude. It is very much a matter of going with the flow with this part of the ballet, rather than trying to make too much sense of how it works with the narrative.
As Cinderella, Ako Kondo was lovely, showing a light fluidity coupled with crisp transitions from slightly off-centre photographic moments back to full centredness. Disappointingly, despite the transformative theme of the ballet, there does not seem to be much real character development in the choreography for this role. This is even more the case for the Prince, who doesn't have quite as much to do as one would like. He seems to be more of an object than a real character. Even so, Chengwu Guo was immaculate as ever with his signature facility for dramatic jumps and elegant turns, and the pair had a beautiful presence.
This is a visually cluttered production. Faux surrealism clashes with old-school sets and all is overlaid with rather unsubtle lighting effects. With multiple projections of swirling galaxies and shooting stars I kept feeling trapped in an episode of Doctor Who. There was even a fleet of giant topiary/metronomes/daleks looking very miscast and as if they were unsure of exactly where they had arrived in the space-time continuum.
Costuming is vaguely situated between world wars but, again, liberties abound. That said, many of the costumes are fun with some real elegance too (chic evening pants suits for the women in the ball scene). But overall, too many visual codes are mashed together – vivid and gaudy colours for the comic characters, muted colours for the sophisticated, luminous white for our heroine and hero, and drab and weird for the Godmother and her celestial entourage.
I can’t help feeling that Ratmansky left his A grade at home. His Cinderella feels a bit as if he brought along some remnants to his creation for The Australian Ballet and has tried to stitch them into a whole. This was my first viewing of the work and perhaps it is one that requires a deeper acquaintance for full appreciation.
Cinderella runs until March 28.
Pictured top are Ako Kondo as Cinderella and Chengwu Guo as the Prince. Photo: Jeff Busby.