Ratmansky’s Cinderella: a spellbinding tale told in a framework of the cosmos, circles and squares

This review was commissioned by Dance Europe, and was published at the end of October in the November issue of the magazine.

Within the narrative framework of Prokofiev’s score Alexei Ratmansky has created a spellbinding Cinderella for the Australian Ballet.

His heroine lives in a fairy-free world, but her adventures are accompanied by magical creatures of other kinds, among them dancing planets including the earth, stars, the moon and the sun, all summoned by a Godmother in drab disguise who guides Cinderella on her way to the ball.

The godmother – a beak-nosed wise woman or Hecate, the Greek goddess who rules over the earth sea and sky – sparks a journey into a surreal universe where the moon metamorphoses into a clock, where topiary trees turn into metronomes, and where a footstool takes its name literally. Would-be princesses eagerly pluck Cinders’ lost shoe from the stool, fashioned in the shape of four stumpy human legs and feet.

Such fantastical moments are evident throughout the entire ballet.

Ratmansky and his A-team of collaborators have appropriated surrealistic images familiar from the paintings of Rene Magritte, Salvador Dali and de Giorgio de Chirico, and the fashions of the couturier, Elsa Schiaparelli, to establish both mystery and the period in which the story is placed, the early 1940s, when Prokofiev was writing his score and when the influence of the surrealism art movement was still apparent.

It may sound like an exercise in intellectualism but in performance, it’s definitely not.

Full of ballet jokes (as was Ratmansky’s The Bright Stream), the new Cinders breezes along, is lusciously colourful, and tells the tale wittily and clearly in the classical vocabulary. No fiddly mime, the body says it all.

But while Ratmansky’s choreography is balletic from the waist down, it leans towards contemporary dance in the freedom of the upper body, particulary the arms and in its general weighedness.

For his new Cinders, Ratmansky has borrowed from his first Cinderella, choreographed in 2002 for the Mariinsky Ballet.

Both ballets have a frumpy Godmother figure, (known as the Fairy Tramp in the 2002 version), both feature social dancing in the ball scene, most noticably the use of a conga line, and both give poor Cinderella the extra burden of an alcoholic father.

What they don’t share in any way is the setting – bleak and modernist (created by Ilia Utkin and Yevgeny Monakhov), in 2002, but now a vibrant and playful collaboration by the Frenchman, Jerome Kaplan, (set and costume designer), the American, Wendall K. Harrington, (projection designer), and the Australian, Rachel Burke, (lighting designer) who together cook up a visual feast.

It’s a ballet of squares and circles. Square mirrors, door frames and picture frames contrast with circular clock faces, the moon, and puffball skirts and sugarloaf wigs for both the Stepsisters, called Skinny and Dumpy, and rather too much tulle and puffiness for the cosmic creatures except for the Moon who is lucky enough to wear a simply, slinkier costume.

The first scene establishes an extra layer of unreality to an already unreal story. A silk curtain opens to reveal Cinderella’s home, set behind a mid-stage square proscenium. A signboard, propped up on its side, spells out the word theatre in Russian

When the Stepmother, played with gusto by Amy Harris, tears the portrait from the frame, the Godmother (Lynette Wills) appears in a long grey coat and bowler hat, then conjures up 12 projected images of the mother. The multiple images twinkling in an arc combine to create the first wow! moment in the entire production.

The surrealist imagery that dominates many scenes includes a plump, pink, Mae West lips sofa, as designed by Dali, a Magritte-style bowler hat, Schiaparelli shoe hats and a door frame slumped tipsily to one side, resembling a forgotten stage prop.

The Stepmother, a narcissistic, Wallis Simpson-like figure wears hot pink, the Stepsisters, (Ingrid Gow and Halaina Hills) wear emerald and coral balloon skirts and stripy socks under their pointe shoes. As she leaves for the ball, the Stepmother wraps herself in an imposing hooded purple cloak in such bad taste that it might be coveted by the madam in Manon.

Ratmansky’s choreography for the Stepsisters is well executed. There are plenty of pratfalls, but they’re strangely compelling, slow-mo pratfalls. When one sister rolls onto the floor, she falls softly, like a feather pillow, into a very inelegant pose with her legs wide apart. It’s not so much vulgar as innocently silly.

The sisters prance and preen, striking ballet poses of the mannered kind we might see in a suburban ballet competition.

In contrast, Cinderella (Leanne Stojmenov) is demure in her ash grey dress and headscarf, a costume that eventually gives way to a floaty Dior New Look dress in white and gold when she arrives at the ball. Her interpretation doesn’t dwell on despair or pathos. She has her sad moments, but her default position is one of happy, smiling surprise.

Circular skirts, a circular clock cloth, circular patterns of choreography – the Sun drags the Moon and Earth around – circular projections of the cosmos, a few whirls and a lot of pas de chats later, Cinderella is in the ballroom, a cold, Soviet style hall with malachite and gold columns where ball guests (long coats for the men and tuxedo suits in muted jade, chocolate, garnet and plum for the women) dance the hours away as they prance in profile, form a conga line and bend their bodies in a distorted mazurka.

Ratmansky excels at entrances, including those of the Stepmother and Stepsisters at the ball, and then the Prince, (Daniel Gaudiello), a Gatsby figure in a white suit, whose explosive entrance of jetes, entrachats signified his charm, joie de vivre and energy.

The subsequent solos and pas de deux for the Prince and Cinderella are charming and swoony and no doubt exhausting as, from this point on, they seldom leave the stage.

Ratmansky follows Prokofiev’s score in taking the Prince on his journey around the world in search of the girl he met at the ball.

In this choreographic travelogue he includes a scene representing Prokofiev’s musical interlude, titled Temptation. The Prince meets a bevy of female Temptors who dance against a backdrop of a woman’s legs in red shoes – Christian Louboutin, maybe? – a scene that adds little to the narrative, and is followed by male Temptors, then images of a painted ship on a painted ocean, a cartoon train (shades of The Bright Stream), a vintage car, and finally a brutalist city landscape that brings the Prince to reality, Cinderella’s humble home.

Back in the kitchen, with the Stepsisters and Stepmother, Ratmansky allows himself one more ballet joke as the Prince, takes the hands of the three women, gently tugging from their floor, in a reference to Apollo and the three Muses.

The ballet ends dreamily, rather sadly, as the music prescribes, as Cinderella and the Prince dance on and on into – where?

The music does not really predict ‘happily ever after’ but the ballet does. Even without fairies, a Cinderella ballet must have a fairytale ending.

The Australian Ballet must be pleased with its new commission, reportedly costing well over $A1.5 million.

It deserves, and should have, a long shelf life.

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Leanne Stojmenov and Daniel Gaudiello in Cinderella, photo © Jeff Busby

Artists of The Australian Ballet as the planets and stars, in Cinderella, 2013, photo © Jeff Busby

Daniel Gaudiello, the Prince in Cinderella, photo © Jeff Busby

Leanne Stojmenov and Lynette Wills, Cinderella, photo © Jeff Busby

Leanne Stojmenov and Lynette Wills in Cinderella 2013, photo © Jeff Busby

Leanne Stojmenov in Cinderella 2013, photo © Jeff Busby

Artists of The Australian Ballet in Cinderella 2013, photo © Jeff Busby