Everything old is new again as Li Cunxin launches his artistic directorship with Stevenson’s Cinderella

The Queensland Ballet’s new production of Cinderella begins and ends with two powerful images, the first representing oppression and grief, the second signalling rebirth.

As the curtain rises for Act 1, we see a dimly lit room partly divided by a red curtain – a kind of theatre within the theatre – where the beams of a low ceiling seem to bear down on the unhappy inhabitants, Cinderella, her ineffectual father, her imperious stepmother and her abusive stepsisters.

We might be about to see an Ibsen play if it wasn’t for the raucous entrance of the Stepsisters in drag. Their garish costumes, their pantomime pratfalls and embarrassing attempts at dainty dancing swiftly transport us from a world of despair to the comfort of a Christmas pantomime.

The final image takes the audience to a quite different place – a celestial tableau, in the manner of The Firebird, when the stage setting glows and children dressed in white and sprouting angel wings accompany a priest who blesses Cinderella and her Prince as they are crowned.

This finale, underpinned by Prokofiev’s great score, is both an apotheosis and a dream, beautifully lit by David Walters, one of three designers commissioned by the Queensland Ballet to reinvigorate Ben Stevenson’s 43-year-old production.

The Queensland Ballet production, with sets by Thomas Boyd and costumes by Tracy Grant Lord, is the first full evening ballet programmed by Li Cunxin as artistic director of Queensland Ballet so it’s natural that he went back to the past and his long association with Ben Stevenson who as artistic director of Houston Ballet, discovered Li as a dancer in China and arranged for him to join the Houston company as an exchange student in the late 1970s.

Sentimentality aside, Li also needed a sure fire box office success and nothing spells that as well as a fairy tale with a sumptuous score, dresses splashed with crystals, a comedy duo and a happy ending.

Not that Cinderella easily translates as a ballet as it calls for a combination of sincerity, innocence and evil and asks an audience to believe there is such a thing as love at first sight.

Many Cinderella ballerinas have sat by the fireside since Stevenson made his interpretation in 1970 and the tale has been twisted and turned this way and that, from Nureyev’s version set in Hollywood, Stanton Welch’s production in which Cinders was more of a tomboy than a little girl’s dream of a ballerina, and Christopher Wheeldon’s recent co-production for the Dutch National Ballet and San Francisco Ballet which he based on the dark and terrifying Cinderella story as told by the Brothers Grimm.

Wheeldon gave Cinderella as a heroine more power, saying “I think little girls today are over the idea that if you’re obedient and meek, you’ll be rewarded with a prince”.

Alexei Ratmansky, who is choreographing a new Cinderella for the Australian Ballet this year, tackled the story in 2002. His heroine wore a shabby cardigan and danced at home within a modernist set bordered by metal staircases. The prince looks for the owner of the discarded slipper at a brothel and gay nightclub and the Fairy Godmother is called the Fairy Tramp.

But don’t expect any Freudian or modernist aspects in Stevenson’s Cinderella.

His Fairy Godmother is a darling, disguised as a beggar wearing a voluminous black cape until she is revealed as a saviour. And there is a pumpkin, white mice, a carriage, four variations for fairies, representing each season, a beautiful pink tutu with a ribboned bodice for Cinderella and more crystals on the costumes than any ballet I can recall.

The Stepsisters wear the ugliest dresses that designer, Tracy Grant Lord, could imagine – featuring panniers and the colours chartreuse along with a shade I decided was coral-tinted bubble-gum, and shiny, laced ankle boots that highlight their clunky heel-toe walk. (Ballet dancers, of course, walk toe-heel).

Paul Boyd as the Short Stepsister and Matthew Lawrence as the Tall Stepsister were outstanding in their characterisations and their floundering attempts to dance in an elegant manner, but why do the Stepsisters of Cinderella need to be in drag at all?

In the first (Soviet Union) production of Cinderella to the Prokofiev score, the sisters were danced by women, but an earlier production with a different score, choreographed by Michel Fokine, introduced the sisters en travesti.

It toured to London in 1939, and lodged in the mind of Frederick Ashton who cast himself and Robert Helpmann as the Stepsisters in his very successful production of 1948, thus setting the scene for many choreographers to follow, including Stevenson.

Prokoviev’s score, however, written between 1941 and 1944 does not conjure up pantomime dames (such as the clog dancing Widow Simone in La Fille mal Gardee) but is sombre and forbidding, reflecting the time in which it was created.

If he were alive today, I wonder what Prokofiev would think of the pantomime dames.

All Cinderellas though, tell stories of transformation and with Stevenson’s ballet, the first takes place as the kitchen/dining room setting is itself transformed into a magical glade, with the branches of the trees taking the place of the ceiling beams.

Dragonflies flutter and the Fairy Godmother (Clare Morehen) calls on the four fairies – Spring (Rachael Walsh), Summer (Lisa Edwards), Autumn (Tamara Hanton) and Winter (Katherine Rooke) – as she helps transform Cinders into a princess.

In this role, Morehen, an elegant dancer with a commanding manner, acts as the equivalent of the Lilac Fairy in The Sleeping Beauty, leading the other fairies as they bestow gifts on Aurora.

In Stevenson’s Cinderella, as each fairy dances, the setting changes to reflect the season they portray.

Again, this follows the pattern of Ashton’s narrative. Perhaps Ashton was influenced by both The Sleeping Beauty and Nutcracker in these transformation scenes.

Stevenson created his Cinderella on a small company in the United States and the revival is also set on the smallish Queensland Ballet, supplemented by students from the company’s pre-professional program and the Queensland Dance School of Excellence.

Even with these additional dancers the ballroom act – Act II – looks bare – with a minimal set and not enough dancers to project the idea of a grand royal ball. All the female dancers wear the same costume, white tulle overlayed with blue, and feathered headdresses, making the corps seem an anonymous backdrop rather than a group of individual guests.

The choreography for the corps is repetitive, with much waltzing and busy port de bras.

Stevenson also followed Ashton in having a Harlequin-like jester marshal the guests in the ballroom scene and being a jester, he must of course dance with the virtuosity of the Soviet era jesters of Swan Lake.

On opening night, Yu Hui as the Jester tore up the stage with his attack and astonishing leaps as you can see from the photo gallery on the left.

I’m not sure, however, that the Jester adds to the narrative but is there, rather, for some showcase dancing.

Following an amusing send up of ballet steps and poses danced by the Stepsisters we at last reach the heart and soul of the ballet with the pas de deux for Cinderella and the Prince.

Here, Stevenson has created a grand pas de deux in the 19th century manner, with adage and variations for both dancers.

Meng Ningning was exquisite as she shed the image of a poignant teenage victim clothed in grey and became a tender, loving – and regal – woman.

Stevenson choreographed some very tricky passages for the couple, with sideways fish dives and lifts that indicate both lightness and a swooning quality as Cinderella melts into the arms of her Prince.

Hao Bin effortlessly (well, so it seemed) partnered Ningning as he projected the sheer joy of falling in love – instantly.

The chilling notes of the clock chiming midnight bring us back to the darkness of Cinderella’s home but only briefly, as Act III’s slipper scene quickly gives way to the last transformation, again in the glade, where Cinderella and the Prince dance a romantic pas de deux before the final tableau.

One of the heroes of the evening was the company’s music director and principal conductor, Andrew Mogrelia, conducting the Queensland Symphony Orchestra in an impeccable performance, despite the fact that the pit in the Playhouse of the Queensland Performing Arts Centre is not large enough for a full orchestra. (The winds, brass and percussion parts had been rearranged to allow for this smaller space.)

Like Cinderella, the Queensland Ballet is undergoing a transformation as it moves from the choreographer-led model to that of a commissioning artistic director. Li, however, has an extra string to his bow – his persuasive personality and energy, both on show on opening night in his pre-show address from the stage to the audience and his speech at a reception afterwards.

Well known for his book, Mao’s Last Dancer, he is less well known for his work as a motivational speaker and for his powers of friendly persuasion. He can, and does persuade many of those around him, an attribute he will need as he works on building and maintaining a vibrant repertoire.