Monday 15 June 2015

Ballet Cymru's Cinderella

Photo: Sleepy Robot
(c) 2015 Ballet Cymru, All rights reserved
Reproduced with kind permission of 
I have seen a lot of versions of Cinderella over the years: Ashton's of course for the Royal Ballet but also Matthew Bourne's set in wartime London, Nixon's for Northern Ballet and a version danced by the Bristol Russian Youth Ballet Company which starred Elena Glurdjidze (see Good Show - Bristol Russians' Cinderella in Stockport 19 Feb 2014), Until yesterday evening I liked Ashton's version best but now I think I prefer Darius James and Amy Doughty's for Ballet Cymru. Perhaps I will change my mind again when I see Christopher Wheeldon's for the Dutch National Ballet at the Coliseum on 11 July 2015 as it looks lovely in the YouTube trailer, but for now this Welsh Cinderella is my favourite.

Ballet Cymru's Cinderella is choreographed by Darius James and Amy Doughty to a new score by Jack White. It is a co-production with the Riverfront Theatre in Newport in association with Citrus Arts. This is a very tight production that adapts well to touring with ingenious costume and stage design and lighting. It is dramatic and poignant in parts but also witty. It is exactly the right length. It tells the story in full but does not drag for a second. It makes maximum use of the company's small but very talented troupe of dancers.

In the inset of the programme someone has written in English and Welsh:
"We are a ballet company who like to do things a bit differently. We enjoy finding new ways to make what we do exciting, innovative and relevant."
This production was certainly innovative but it was also firmly based on the work of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. The ballet opened with a voice over reading the words of Cinderella's dying mother (Krystal Lowe) as she was tended by her daughter (Allegra Vianello):
 "Dear child, remain pious and good, and then our dear God will always protect you, and I will look down on you from heaven and be near you."
James made a few modifications to the story. He gave Cinderella a gawky, half witted step brother called Cas (Robbie Moorcroft) as well as a step sister called Seren (Lydia Arnoux) and as you will have probably guessed from the names of the step children he rooted his ballet in Wales. But then why not? The brothers Grimm did not mention a location or give names to their characters and Wales has no shortage of forests lakes, mountains, castles and even princes who marry commoners in real life. Overall, James took far fewer liberties with his literary source than did Bourne, Nixon settling his ballet in pre-revolutionary Russia, Ashton or indeed the traditional British pantomime.

The ballet proceeds as in the fairy tale with the marriage of the well meaning but ineffectual father (Andrea Battagia) to the mean and jealous step mother, Aerona (Natalie Debono). The family receives an invitation to Prince Madoc's ball. Incidentally, there really was a Prince Madoc in Welsh history who gave his name to the towns of Tremadoc and Portmadoc in Carnarvonshire (now part of the modern county of Gwynedd) and who is said to have discovered America several centuries before Columbus (see the entry in Wikipedia). Cinderella wants to go but her step mother gives her the Herculean labour of picking up within the hour a bowl of lentils which she peevishly scatters on the stage. As in the story, the birds come to her rescue. A voice over reads the rhyme:
"The good ones go into the pot,
The bad ones go into your crop."
They swoop and pick up the grains within the hour as stipulated by Aerona.

Of course, that is still not good enough for the step mother who forbids Cinderella from attending the ball on the pretext that she can't dance and has nothing to wear; but Cinderalla's mother now in the form of a bird presents her with a beautiful ball gown which it plucks from a tree by her mother's grave and off she goes. You may have noticed, gentle reader, the absence of a fairy godmother and a Cinders mobile morphed from a pumpkin drawn by mice in James's ballet but you won't find any of that in the Grimms' story either.

The family arrive at the reception by their separate ways and the stepmother and her daughter make a beeline for the Prince. He and his friends Maldwyn (Mandev Sokhi) and Math (Tim Hill) try to keep out of their way. At one point they comically crouch behind the furniture in an attempt to conceal themselves. But then the Prince spots Cinderella whom he had previously seen at her mother's graveside. He falls for her and they dance all night until she has to make her getaway losing her pointe shoe in her flight.

The prince and his entourage tour the town inviting the girls of the parish to try on the pointe shoe. Eventually, they reach Cinderella's house and her step sister tries on the shoe. Remarkably (as Arnoux is a very petite dancer) the shoe is too big so her brother sets about her with a meat cleaver to perform foot surgery without anaesthetic. There are squeals and squawks of pan from Arnoux but to no avail. The voice over, representing the birds, reads:
"Rook di goo, rook di goo!
There's blood in the shoe.
The shoe is too tight,
This bride is not right!"
Poor Seren hobbles about with a red ribbon representing a stream of blood.  Aerona then forces Cas into drag and he emerges with a crinoline frame rather like the ones that Ruth Brill uses in her ballet Matryoshka (see Birmingham Royal Ballet in High Wycombe 31 May 2015). He tries on the pointe shoe but he has no more luck than his sister despite also undergoing agonizing foot surgery.

Cinderella enters and produces the other shoe from under a cushion on the sofa. She tries on the lost shoe and of course it fits. Prince Madoc claims his bride. The birds chase Aerona and Cas away but perhaps it is not all bad news for the step family because the closing scene shows Seren dancing happily with Math.

This was an enchanting ballet and I could quite happily have sat through it all again there and then had that been possible. I loved White's score - maybe not quite as much as Prokofiev's - but then it fitted the ballet like a glove. An arranger or even a musicologist would have had to have taken a meat cleaver to Prokofiev and the result might have been no more satisfactory than the operation on the feet of Cas and Seren. I also loved Steve Denton's designs, particularly Aerona's headdress, which suggested horns as well as vulgarity in millinery. Denton made Seren look really plain which is an achievement because Arnoux is actually a very attractive young woman when not in costume. I loved Chris Illingworth's lighting design and the ingenious use of a projector to set the scene which is ideal for touring.  But most of all I loved the choreography and the dancing which had some unusual features like a remarkable three person lift and turn executed by the step family and some ape like acrobatics by Cas and Seren. There were great performances by all, particularly Lowe, who transformed herself convincingly from a dying woman into an angry bird.

I discussed the choreography with Darius James whom I met in the interval. He told me that the remarkable three person lift and turn had been a circus trick devised by Citrus. He also said that the cast rotates and that the different dancers interpret the roles quite differently. That is, of course, what one would expect but I would love to see it for myself. If I can, I will try to catch this production with a different cast somewhere else on its tour.

Ballet Cymru is a very special company. It is, of course, a national ballet company and while it is nothing like as big as English National Ballet or Scottish Ballet I don't think anyone could argue that it is not in its own way just as good. It does a lot of things that other companies don't do such as its collaboration with Gloucestershire Dance which produced an Explosion of Joy in Llandudno on 21 Sept 2014. Much of the credit for that triumph must go to the choreographer Marc Brew whom I featured in Special Brew on 28 April 2015. As I said in that feature and in my review of his Exalt Brew is now working with Ballet Cymru and I see from the programme that he has been appointed Associate Artistic Director. In our conversation James told me that the company will dance a new work by Brew together with TIR and Celtic Concerto in Newport, Llandudno and London later in the year. Even though we won't see the wonderful Cerys Matthews as she will be in Chubut to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the voyage of the Mimosa to Patagonia (see Y Wladfa in Wikipedia)  I can't wait to see it.

Ballet Cyrmu is a great national treasure not just for the principality but for the whole United Kingdom which is no doubt why the London Ballet Circle seem to pay it special attention despite their metropolitan provenance. If you get the chance to see a performance by this company then go. It is a good example of what a small touring company can do and provides an excellent model for others.

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