Ratmansky’s Cinderella at the Coliseum – a round up of the London reviews

The London critics are mostly in agreement in their reviews of the Australian Ballet’s Cinderella, choreographed by Alexei Ratmansky in 2013 and performed for the first time in the UK at the Coliseum (20-23 July).

Almost all the critics praised Ratmansky’s choreography, the performances of Leanne Stojmenov and Amy Harris, and the designs of Jerome Kaplan, although there was a sharp difference of opinion with one element of the design – the costumes for the Planets and other celestial creatures who whisk Cinders away to the ball. All but one critic – Mark Monaghan – were enthusiastic about the overall design of the sets and costumes.

The Times gave the production a 4 star rating, as it did for Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake performed earlier in the Australian Ballet’s season. Once again the News Ltd paywall means only subscribers can see the entire Times’ review, written by Donald Hutera, however the image of the printed arts page (at the left) shows some of the text.

Hutera was positive from the start: “Premiered in 2013 and derived in large part from a version originally made for the Mariinsky Ballet in 2002, Alexei Ratmansky’s take on Cinderella is a treat. This three-act production for the Australian Ballet is imbued with a vivacious and often camp elegance.

“It was also danced with a beautifully swoony precision on opening night by Leanne Stojmenov as the dreamy heroine and Kevin Jackson as her crisply glamorous Prince. Indeed, the entire Melbourne-based company seemed to be in tune with Ratmansky’s vision of fun underpinned by feeling, their amplitude and fresh collective energy…”

The Guardian, gave the production 3 stars, as it did for Swan Lake.

Critic David Jays wrote: “Cinderella is a story about building a future from the ashes of the past. Neglected Cinderella, defined by her unhappy childhood, finds a new tomorrow. Prokofiev composed his ballet early in the second world war, and the score holds a load of grief and grotesque scrabble as well as fantasy. Listen to the melancholy overture, and you might not peg this for a romcom.

“Alexei Ratmansky honours both fear and fun in his 2013 production for Australian Ballet (following an earlier version for the Mariinsky), set in Prokofiev’s own age of anxiety. Cinderella and her stepfamily are holed up in a dilapidated theatre. Her father makes a brief shamefaced appearance in search of vodka, and, unlike Frederick Ashton’s classic panto-inflected production, Ratmansky casts women as the stepsisters and includes their alarming, short-fuse mother (Amy Harris, glamorous but scissor-kicking across the stage in a tantrum).

“Her daughters – one lanky, one stumpy – aren’t monsters, just under-loved gawks always one ill-judged turn from collapse.

“Delicious designs by Jerome Kaplan nod to surrealist icons – Schiaparelli’s shoe hat, Dali and Man Ray. The fairy godmother is a practical Nanny McPhee figure in a tall bowler hat, and rather than summoning fairies to transform Cinderella, she commands a distracting squadron of planets.

“In a plum-marbled palace, the snooty court ladies wear chic tuxedos in chocolate and pistachio tones for their cool, slouchy moves. (The Australian Ballet ensemble is a treat, always winningly engaged.) Cinders, however, goes to the ball in a luscious New Look frock, gleaming in gilt and pearl.

“In a busy production, Cinderella herself can seem a wallflower, but Ratmansky makes her an original, resilient heroine. The sweet, sad oval of Leanne Stojmenov’s face registers in softly expansive solos, where tomboyish vigour and exuberant turns are cut with hands craving a hero to cradle, a mother to hug. When she makes it to the palace, she luxuriates in the space – but Stojmenov will still smile at herself, even in full swoon with the prince.

“Princes – they’re always a problem. This one (Kevin Jackson) arrives dazzling in a white silk suit – big jumps, big smile. He spins the ladies and shoves them away; he has a lot of growing up to do. It’s characteristically insightful of Ratmansky to realise he needs rescuing even more than Cinders does: when they dance, she makes him nicer, less guarded, more than a well-dressed grin. Stojmenov and Jackson hold tiny pauses as they dance, as if registering something momentous.

“Which makes it all the more disappointing when, after midnight strikes, and Cinders is returned to rags, the Prince sweeps past her with nary a glance. Ratmansky’s ample version of the no-filler score – mined for all its uncanny detail by conductor Nicolette Fraillon – has him wander the world and resist tempters in properly alluring frocks, until he’s ready to appreciate the real Cinderella. Their final pas de deux is shimmeringly solemn, a moment extended as long as possible. This could just be what happy ever after looks like”.

The Telegraph’s Mark Monahan, who was not impressed by Swan Lake, wrote a more positive review of Cinderella. He gave it 3 stars although his review was written in the style of ‘yes, liked that/no didn’t like that’.

He admired many of the elements but found that on the whole, the ballet was a “curious confection, one whose effectiveness rises and falls like a sine-wave*: no sooner do you find your attention waning, than something comes along to grab it (and vice versa) “…Ratmansky is the most talented neoclassical choreographer active, and this recent version [of Cinderella] tells the story fairly ‘straight’, negotiating the tragicomic tightrope deftly.

“The more sombre sections – such as the elegant opening, with the heroine first pining and praying for her dead mother, and then dancing a mournful and charming little soliloquy – are, in the main, nicely handled, not too melodramatically dark. And the steps for Skinny, Dumpy and the Stepmother (the latter two especially), are super: witty, inventive and often funny, but just the right side of full-blown caricature”.

Monahan disliked the costumes for the Planets which he found “so bulbously unsympathetic to the classical-ballet line that they render their and Ratmansky’s efforts incredibly hard to judge, and as good as useless.

“Suddenly, however, when the Fairy Godmother warns Cinderella about her midnight curfew, a dozen spiky, black-clad figures appear from nowhere, each one clutching a Roman numeral for each number of the clock-face: a welcome and pungent dash of almost Dickensian noir.

“Similarly, the passages for the corps in Act II are elegantly constructed (and nicely danced), but peppered with odd little inflections – a paw-like carriage of the hands here, a splash of the Charleston there – that grate. Cinderella, too, is given a lovely entrance to the ball, soon followed by a truly horrible little series of triumphant fist-pumps (also requoted later) that feel more Wayne Rooney than magical heroine: did Ratmansky cast his choreographic net just a little too widely?

“Still, if Cinderella’s solos often carry on a little too long, they are, in the main, undeniably attractive and emotionally communicative pieces of neoclassical choreography, and Leanne Stojmenov performs them very prettily indeed.

“Ratmansky’s steps for her rather rock-starry Prince, too, are unfussy and robust, and delivered with athletic brio by a white-suited Kevin Jackson. Although arguably not over-endowed with Tarzan-like virility, Jackson’s Prince falls convincingly for Cinders, and she for him: they make a charming couple.

“As Dumpy, Eloise Fryer has irresistible fun, especially in Act II, dancing with meticulous ridiculousness…

“For top laurels, however, she is pipped by Amy Harris’s Stepmother, who embraces the fusion of stiletto-like angularity and comic venom in Ratmansky’s steps, coming across as an unnervingly alluring preying-mantis.

“As for Jerome Kaplan’s surrealism-tinged set designs, with their nods to everyone from Dali to de Chirico, my personal jury is still out. Act II’s 10 verdant pillars, for example, look more like mossy ghosts than even remotely convincing topiary – but even they have a surprise in store.

“An enjoyable, colourful, briskly delivered show…”

In the Arts Desk’s 4 star review Hanna Weibye praised Kaplan’s designs, “especially in costume: clever sculptural outfits exaggerate the ugly sisters’ traditional characterisations (Skinny and Dumpy) so that one is dressed as a cylinder, the other as a sphere.

“The planets which appear instead of seasons in Act I (a brilliant conceit) have delightful ball-shaped tutus in a range of earthy metallic tones; the ball guests are dashing in mauve and sage velvet tuxedos; Cinders gets to wear gorgeous smoke-grey chiffon at home and white tulle with gold lamé at the ball. Even the Stepmother is spared the usual mutton-dressed-as-lamb treatment and given instead a snappy magenta outfit complete with joke-enormous but seriously gorgeous fur cloak.

“The dissonance of the score is rendered visually through oddness, rather than ugliness, Jerome Kaplan and Ratmansky used Surrealist art with its skewed proportions and misplaced objects to convey the subtly off-key, magical reality that Cinderella inhabits: it is inspired to have Dali’s clock faces and Man Ray’s metronome appear at key moments in this clock-obsessed ballet, though Dali’s ‘Mae West’ sofa is rather too iconic to be plausible in Cinderella’s house.

“Digital animations of planets and weather add brilliant touches of whimsy in the background, but the big ones used as temporary front cloths for the world journey sequence looked flat and jarring against the sculptural shapes and muted mid-century colours of the rest of the design.

“The most satisfying visual, however, is the choreography itself. We in the UK haven’t seen as much of Ratmansky as we would like, and certainly not his story ballets: this Cinderella brings home in a most satisfying way the quality of Ratmansky’s mature style…

“This is very much not a soaring ballet, but a grounded one”…”It’s in these petit allegro sequences that Ratmansky’s nature as a dancer’s choreographer is clearest: he is a real master of classical ballet’s grammar as well as its style, and his work has a density and substance to it that, for example, Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake last week lacked…

“Having seen Australian Ballet twice in a week now, I’m beginning to form a picture of their house style.

“It stresses prettiness and charm in acting, and years of good work have gone into producing the soft arms and expressive hands that practically every dancer deploys to good effect. There are a number of dancers with gorgeous feet, but very few who routinely finish jumps and turns cleanly, and the corps work was a little messy in both performances I saw.

“Still, it’s an engaging package overall, and for something like Cinderella, smooth charm works very well. There isn’t too much character development in either Leanne Stojmenov’s Cinderella or Kevin Jackson’s Prince, but both imbue their characters with genuine personality, and Stojmenov in particular is a charming lead, playing Cinders in the best tradition of loveable Aussie girls-next-door (see: Kylie Minogue).

“Act III verges on the long side, what with the prince going on his round-the-world journey including temptations of the male and female variety (both rather tacky; best skipped over) and a long final pas de deux: the story’s urgency dissipates, and the pas de deux doesn’t have the climactic quality that sends other fairy-tale ballets out on a high…

“But too much Ratmansky is a good problem to have, and even in its occasional longeurs this Cinderella is brilliantly easy on the eye…”

In her brief (4 star) review, The Evening Standard’s Lyndsey Winship acknowledges “the charms” of Ratmansky’s Cinderella.

“There’s little cruelty in his telling, the sisters more cheeky and childish than grotesque, the stepmother almost sympathetic when you see Cinders’ drunkard dad.

“The handsome prince looks like an Instagram A-lister who always keeps it #classy; a man in control — as is the big-leaping Kevin Jackson who plays him. But his composure is pricked by Cinderella (Leanne Stojmenov), the subtle softness of her dancing marking her out against the quirky moves of everyone else.

“There’s ease and warmth in the company’s dancing. You might expect that from Aussies, but it’s matched in Ratmansky’s choreography (a Russian, so there goes the stereotype), whose fluid phrases glance off Prokofiev’s vivacious score.

“Jerome Kaplan’s designs are fun, if a bit of a mish-mash — boldly coloured camp in Act I turns to elegant marble columns and dusky tones, then surrealism and a dancing solar system with planets in puffball skirts.

“Ratmansky knows what he’s doing but the overall effect of the comedy is more titters than LOLs, the love story more sweet smiles than heart-swelling passion. Still, beneath all the silliness, there is a refreshing inkling of Cinderella being her own woman, just a hint of realism amid the pantomime”.

Most of the reviews have now been published although I’m still waiting for the views of The Financial Times and DanceTabs** critics.The

* ‘A sine wave or sinusoid is a mathematical curve that describes a smooth repetitive oscillation’. (Thanks, Wikipedia)

** The Dancetabs review (3 stars) by Jann Parry has now been posted.

Summing up the production she ended her review with these thoughts:

“…the production lurches between down-to-earth Aussie niceness and the designer’s European conceits. All the same, the treatment is colourful and surprising, its cartoon-like gags contrasted with emotionally expressive pas de deux.

“Ratmansky uses a varied neo-classical ballet vocabulary so fluently that it’s disappointing when he fails to reflect Prokofiev’s complex rhythms in ensemble set-pieces.

“The Australian Ballet’s dancers make the most of their roles, though only Cinderella is enabled to reveal different aspects of her personality, transformed from feisty girl to fulfilled lover.

“Stojmenov was charm personified, subsuming technique (and naturalistic stomping around) into unforced responses to the music and her princely partner.

“Jackson made the brash prince into a Mr Darcy figure, tamed by his sensible, albeit highly romantic wife-to-be…”

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