Cinderella – Yuhui Choe
The Prince – Sergei Polunin
Stepsisters – Alastair Marriott, Jonathan Howells
Cinderella’s Father – Christopher Saunders
Fairy Godmother – Francesca Filpi
Fairy Spring – Elizabeth Harrod
Fairy Summer – Hikaru Kobayashi
Fairy Autumn – Samantha Raine
Fairy Winter – Claire Calvert
Jester – Fernando Montaño
Artists of The Royal Ballet
Orchestra of The Royal Opera House
Frederick Ashton – Choreography
Wendy Ellis Somes – Production, Director and Supervisor
Toer van Schayk – Designs
Christine Haworth – Costumes
Mark Jonathan – Lighting
Reviewed by: G. J. Dowler
Reviewed: 18 April, 2010
Venue: The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London
Just as the still stunning Miyako Yoshida comes to the end of her career with two performances of Cinderella, so two débuts are made, and makes one hope for the future: Yuhui Choe and Sergey Polunin, both young First Soloists of exceptional promise.
Cinderella herself is no easy role to get right; created by Moira Shearer and immortalised by Margot Fonteyn, it has been a vehicle for The Royal Ballet’s greatest dancers since its creation in 1948. It still poses technical challenges as well as the equally important demands concerning interpretation, and nothing pleases me more than to report that Choe sailed through the former and is well on the way with the latter.
Her technical strength made light of the considerable solo in the Act II Ball scene as well as those back at her father’s run-down house. Choe has an easy stage persona, and, while in an ideal world, she would be even more generous with her smile and invite the audience in to her world, that will come. Most importantly, she is a natural for the Ashton style, that elusive quality of movement, musicality and poise which now seems alien to the majority of dancers at what was his home company, a company whose distinctiveness he did so much to forge by giving them a repertoire of original works. Choe bends naturally (as essential Ashtonian quality) and is comfortable with his use of extravagant ports de bras and épaulement (although for an object lesson, one can turn to Laura Morera, the company’s best female exponent of Ashton style, inexplicably not cast in this run as Cinderella, but knocking spots off them all as the Fairy Godmother with other casts).
Polunin looks every inch the prince and moves with a grace and elegance which is carried into his dancing – crisp technique, high jumps, tight footwork and ever improving partnering – he is not yet a principal, and one wonders why not, given the dead wood at the top at present.
When Polunin appears at the top of the ballroom staircase in Act II, the audience spontaneously applauds – this is a special quality indeed. His persona is somewhat reserved at present, and it was difficult to believe that as the Prince he had fallen head over heels with Cinders. He needs to work on character, because not every role is intrinsically dramatic (all those balletic princes are dull souls really) but they all benefit from character and this role was created by that great dance-actor Michael Somes, after all. But these are minor quibbles.
Other roles were unevenly taken – the corps de ballet bent and twisted as they should, but Fernando Montaño’s debut as the Jester rang the loudest of alarm bells. This role was created by Alexander Grant, who brought not only virtuosity but pathos; Montaño would have none of the latter, bouncing and grinning his way through the choreography, blithely ignoring the grace notes of the Ashton style and going for the razzle-dazzle. He has facility but is a messy dancer and is, as yet, intensely unmusical. Suffice to say he would be more suited to the National Ballet of Cuba’s Swan Lake Jester, reviewed here, than Ashton’s; the faint whirring I heard in the auditorium was, I suspect, the sound of the late choreographer spinning in his grave.
The Ugly Sisters, famously created for Ashton himself and Robert Helpmann, may just not be funny any more; I liked very much what Alastair Marriott and Jonathan Howells were doing – there was care, thought and detail in their interpretations, but the audience remained resolutely stony-faced no matter what they did. Things thawed a little at the ball (where what they do is, admittedly, more funny), but I fear that their time may now simply have passed.
The Act I Seasons divertissement contains a veritable cornucopia of choreography, and I was impressed with nearly all the fairies – Francesca Filpi does not possess Morera’s instinctive understanding of the style, but her solo was well judged and she exuded benevolence and warmth, reminding us that this Fairy Godmother is essentially the sister of The Sleeping Beauty’s Lilac Fairy.
Elizabeth Harrod bounced and zipped her way through the tricky Fairy Spring solo whereas Hikaru Kobayashi does not yet communicate the weary voluptuousness of Summer. Samantha Raine was a deft Autumn – I just wanted more abandon in this exciting solo – but I sat up when Claire Calvert appeared as Fairy Winter. She is, I think, the genuine article, and here danced with conviction and great care for the choreography, giving each movement due weight. She is at present ranked as an Artist (i.e. corps de ballet) and I suspect and hope that that will not last long. Tall and womanly, she is striking; I would love to see her essay Fairy Summer too.
Much ink has been spilled over the shortcomings of the present production, and, yes, it overdoes the sparkly fairy bit – the poor season fairies are saddled with shreds of spangly, iridescent material which masquerade as costumes. Periods are all to pot too: Ashton introduced Napoleon and Wellington to dance with the ugly Sisters at the ball and so they appear in period costume, except that the corps de ballet are in Louis XVI. Perhaps it was felt that the tiny tots who come to see Cinderella wouldn’t care, but the adults who come to see the ballet because of its choreography most certainly do. Wendy Ellis Somes, who stages this work, has also sanctioned a cut which is plainly wrong: we have always seen the transformation of the crone into the Fairy Godmother, but not in this production. Not good.
Five stars to Pavel Sorokin in the pit, who whipped up an authentically ‘Soviet’ sound for Prokofiev’s spiky score, all tinny brass and accentuated rhythms; it was such a pleasure to hear this score played so well, and indeed, so quickly – tempi were sprightly which makes all the difference in maintaining momentum both in terms of the story and the dance.
In all a very promising performance which gives much hope for the future; the company must nurture such talent by giving it the food of great choreography – the stars of the Royal Ballet were formed by dancing Ashton and the other great choreographers of the company; there are certain present-day creators whose work will not do the same for this generation.