At the start of their 70th anniversary season, English National Ballet bring their new production of Cinderella to audiences in Manchester for the first time. Choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon and performed in the round earlier this year at the Royal Albert Hall, this promised to be a visually sparkling, beautifully danced production – which it is, but there are also some surprises along the way.
For a start, Wheeldon’s version has removed the Fairy Godmother figure and instead, Cinderella is watched over by a team of four Fates (Junor Souza, James Forbat, James Streeter and Francisco Bosch). Melting in and out of the shadows as one, faces masked, their presence has a touch of menace but it is their guidance that helps the heroine to find her prince. Their presence throughout her life – catching Cinderella when her stepmother trips her up, physically supporting her across the stage in impressive group lifts – somehow seems more meaningful and believable than a fairy who pops up out of nowhere.
Erina Takahashi is a glowing, smiling Cinderella with precise and effortless technique, while her Prince Guillaume (Joseph Caley) is high-spirited and energetic. Their ball scene duet is a gorgeously romantic pas de deux bursting with flowing partner work, sweeping lifts and emotional exuberance. There are further twists to the story: the two lovers meet prior to this, when Guillaume enters Cinderella’s house disguised as a beggar, and it’s not the striking of midnight that forces the heroine to leave the palace, but discovery by her stepmother.
The design on this production is as enchanting as the performances – from the giant two-dimensional tree made lush and alive with clever lighting and projection, to the imposing columns of the palace, and the revolving kitchen table that allows us to see Cinderella’s family from every angle. The ball is without question the visual highlight of the whole production, as dancers in rich blue costumes waltz below a multitude of glittering chandeliers.
The transformation scene takes place in an enchanted forest, with fairies inspired by the seasons (though given different names here) turning the stage into a kaleidoscope of brightly coloured tutus. Several strange woodland creatures appear – some have giant heads, some are humanoid horse chestnuts and others are white feathered birds in dresses. The carriage is a simple but ingenious puppetry creation using wheels of woven branches, horse heads and Cinderella’s cloak for the roof – projection over a gauze screen in front creates the illusion of movement.
Comedy is a key feature of this production, a reminder of the story’s other identity as a pantomime. Tamara Rojo steals many a scene as vicious stepmother Hortensia, whether manically hammering the slipper onto her daughter’s foot with a ladle, drunkenly lurching round the dancefloor at the ball or staggering into the kitchen with a hangover the next morning.
Her two daughters, Edwina and Clementine (Alison McWhinney and Katja Khaniukova) frequently get laughs for their squabbling, exaggerated steps and cheesy grins, though Clementine’s redemptive love story with the prince’s best friend is very sweet.
Christopher Wheeldon’s fresh take on the familiar fairy-tale is bursting with romance, comedy and colour, and should be guaranteed to endure in the English National Ballet repertoire.★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Cinderella is at the Palace Theatre, Manchester from 17-19 October 2019.
As part of English National Ballet’s 70th anniversary the company is celebrating and thanking its touring communities by giving away 70 tickets during each run of performances in every city it tours to. During the performances in Manchester the ballet company has gifted tickets to staff from local charities and organisations including Talbot House, Mustard Tree, Frost Foundation, Lifeshare and Teenage Cancer Trust/Christie Hospital. English National Ballet will also give a ‘Golden Ticket’ for a special English National Ballet experience or piece of merchandise to one audience member per performance in Manchester.