Christopher Wheeldon’s Cinderella in-the-round for English National Ballet at the Royal Albert Hall is sumptuous and spectacular. Originally made for a proscenium-arch, the Hall’s massive arena was inevitably going to bring up some issues with sight lines and intimacy, but it is a bold and magical looking production with some thrilling moments.
Julian Crouch’s resplendent costume and set designs are a feast for the eyes and Daniel Brodie’s projections simply transform the Hall from the dimly lit scullery to a landscape or a palace in a matter of seconds. It’s not entirely without flaws but Wheeldon’s choreography fares best in the enormous corps de ballet scenes, particularly Act II’s ballroom. The opening moments are skilfully done as we see the young Cinders, grief stricken as she loses her mother to consumption. As her mother is transported heavenward, she appears to grow angel wings in a very effective and touching scene.
The Fairy Godmother is replaced by four Fates, who act as guides and protectors, gently urging Cinderella in the right direction. They also contribute to making the swirling lifts more fluid and airborne. The usually ugly sisters are, in reality, beautiful (Edwina and Clementine) but bad behaviour persuades us otherwise. The Prince has a best friend, Benjamin, with whom he switches roles at the beginning, thus a meeting with Cinderella is engineered. A moveable kitchen table works wonders in terms of the space allowing every quarter of the audience to catch some of the drama but occasionally the narrative gets lost in the ether, when backs are turned. In this way, I missed a fair-sized chunk of the action at the first performance I saw and was delighted at the revelations in the second. One rather crass moment is with poor Laura Hussey as Madame Mansard, the dancing teacher – adorned with voluminous, fake breasts which Michael Coleman as Alfred, Benjamin’s father rather loses himself in. But as Act I progresses, it gets better and as the transformation begins, the seasons in their glorious and colourful costumes fill the stage, it starts to look like the fairytale should. In the final moment when Cinderella is hoisted in the air and a carriage and horses are conjured out of nothing, a billowing silk looking very pumpkin-like, the wonderment sets in properly.
Act II is ravishing with its cast of 48 dancers at the ball, dressed in a rich, deep blue. Wheeldon’s vast corps navigate the stage (and all the entrances and exits) supremely well. In fact, the choreography for everyone works very well here although the Russian, Spanish and Balinese Princesses are superfluous as they don’t offer much to the proceedings and have no room to develop. The comedy comes over best in this act, in particular for Stepmother Hortensia who drinks herself into a hilarious stupor. Cinders and her Prince are more mesmerising for being surrounded by spiralling courtiers.
Act III is also amusing – with the multiple slipper trying-on sections, especially Hortensia hammering the shoe onto Edwina’s foot. And the final pas de deux is beautiful but somehow dwarfed by the immense space. It does, however, manage to retain the romance of it all.
At the first performance, Alina Cojocaru and Isaac Hernandez were Cinderella and Prince Guillaume, breathing real life into the fairytale. Cojocaru’s fragility and vulnerability make her ideal as Cinderella yet her steely technique belies her delicate frame. She has us on board from the start, her sweetness, endearingly winning. Hernandez is a coltish young prince, rather than noble, but dances and partners wonderfully well. As Benjamin, Ken Saruhashi gives it everything and even gets his girl (Clementine) in the end. Emma Hawes and Katja Khaniukova as Edwina and Clementine are excellent though some of the comedy doesn’t travel well and comes across as a little too slapstick (bad breath and orgies?). At both performances Sarah Kundi was fabulous as Hortensia, showing great comic timing especially in Act II.
Erina Takahashi and Joseph Caley led the second performance with equal accomplishment. Takahashi beautifully expresses the transition from melancholy to awe to joy and with her flawless technique and real ballerina quality, had us in thrall to her performance. Caley too, is very boyish and charmed us with what seemed like genuine happiness at finding his true love. Alison McWhinney and Anjuli Hudson made good, funny sisters and Barry Drummond was a handsome, warm Benjamin. His clean technique and radiant stage presence surely make him a candidate for a Princely future. A few mentions of some of the less prominent dancers: the corps are superlative, but one cannot help but notice that through necessity, it was populated with soloists, first soloists and even a principal (Shiori Kase as a lead Spirit of Lightness – wasted!). Outstanding among the leading seasons were Shale Wagman, Rhys Antoni Yeomans and Noam Durand, who are just artists but dancing at top soloist level. It’s a Cinderella on a grand scale and unquestionably sends audiences home feeling utterly elated. The company looks unbeatable and boasts numerous casts in each of the solo roles. But, the final plaudits should go to maestro Gavin Sutherland who conducts a glorious sounding English National Ballet Philharmonic, miraculously appearing above the stage in the second act.