English National Ballet’s Cinderella in-the-round reimagines the rags-to-riches story as a stunning fairy tale for our times.
Inspired by the Brothers Grimm version of Cinderella, choreographer Christopher Wheeldon develops a quirky narrative centred around humanity and nature. In short, Cinderella’s compassion, creativity and courage – combined with a little mystical assistance from her dearly departed mother – help her make her own magic.
Wheeldon devised his imaginative interpretation in 2012, as a co-production between Dutch National Ballet and San Francisco Ballet. He has revisited it for English National Ballet, restaging it as Cinderella in-the-round at the Royal Albert Hall.
The Royal Albert Hall is a gloriously distinctive London venue, renowned for its domed roof, regal interior and vast oval-shaped performance platform. Unlike a traditional proscenium arch auditorium, the seating curves around the stage. This is unconventional for ballet so creates extra choreographic challenges. Nonetheless, English National Ballet has previously presented epic adaptations of Swan Lake and Romeo and Juliet at the Royal Albert Hall to great acclaim. Cinderella in-the-round is a third triumphant rendering for this majestic setting.
Such a substantial space showcases Wheeldon’s gift for using fluid movement to generate swirling patterns of ensemble dancers. They flood the stage with colour and charisma when embodying the changing seasons in the first act. Later, they grandly sweep across the dancefloor as waltzing courtiers in the palace ballroom.
More profound moments between key players do not translate quite as effectively in-the-round, simply because they are dwarfed by the surroundings. This is a minor grumble though; the central characters are generally well-developed and always beautifully danced.
The title character is presented as a forlorn but resilient girl who must cope with losing her mother to tuberculosis and being persecuted by a stepmother and two stepsisters. Cinderella spends her childhood visiting her mother’s grave and, from the tears she cries, a magnificent tree grows. This tree, four Fates who watch over Cinders, and an assortment of weird and wonderful forest creatures all help Cinderella grow into a kind-hearted young woman who appreciates and understands the miraculous dance of life. Exactly the type of girl a down-to-earth prince could easily fall in love with.
It is a touching tale, exquisitely told through three acts of captivating dance and impressive stage craft. Lavishly detailed digital projections are accompanied by a few striking pieces of scenery that are rolled into the performance space. Truly magical moments transpire with deceptive ease, particularly when Cinderella’s horse-drawn carriage is conjured up by the dancers with little more than four wheels and a billowing sheet of golden yellow silk.
Without a doubt, Cinderella in-the-round is a thoroughly enjoyable narrative ballet, staged in an incredible venue. It has all the humour, inventiveness and intrigue needed to make it equally engaging for children and grown-ups. The dancing is dazzling. Prokofiev’s dramatic score is played live, to stirring perfection, by English National Ballet Philharmonic. And the crystal-clear storytelling intelligibly communicates the power of love; maternal love, self-love and romantic love.
Watching this ballet is a surprisingly intimate and immersive experience considering the cavernous arena it is performed in. What’s more, thanks to the diverse entrances and exits Wheeldon incorporates, dancers regularly glide past those of us lucky enough to be seated in the stalls.
You almost feel as if you could get up and join them – quite an appropriate feeling for a ballet about seizing the day and making the most of an invitation to a ball!
* Cinderella in-the-round campaign photography by Jason Bell.
* Cinderella in-the-round production photography by Laurent Liotardo and Ian Gavan.
I watched the Friday 7 June matinee performance, with first soloist Emma Hawes as Cinderella and principal Francesco Gabriele Frola as Prince Guillaume (both debuting in their respective roles).
English National Ballet’s Cinderella continues at the Royal Albert Hall until Sunday 16 June 2019.
English National Ballet returns to Milton Keynes Theatre in November 2019 with Le Corsaire.
Le Corsaire is a thrilling ballet about Conrad, a dashing pirate, and his love for feisty Medora, a beautiful harem girl. This swashbuckling drama features plenty of adventures on the high seas – kidnap and rescue, disguise and conspiracy, love and betrayal. Not to mention a breathtaking shipwreck.
Although Le Corsaire is a classic story ballet with many celebrated passages which are often extracted and performed independently, English National Ballet is the only UK company to perform it in its entirety. The company’s extravagant production has enthralled audiences across the world since its world premiere at Milton Keynes Theatre in October 2013.
*Le Corsaire production photography by Laurent Liotardo.
English National Ballet will perform Le Corsaire at Milton Keynes Theatre from Wednesday 20 until Saturday 23 November 2019.
This review is also featured on Total MK.
Georgina Butler is an editor, a dance writer and a ballet teacher.