The challenge facing any choreographer of the Cinderella story is Prokofiev’s score. Written during the second world war, it has a sombre undertow which lends its romanticism an edge of sadness. Matthew Bourne fell in love with the music watching Frederick Ashton‘s version of the ballet, which combines radiant fairytale choreography with very British elements of pantomime, and when he came to create his own version in 1997, decided to set it during the blitz, feeling that the fatalism and desperate gaiety of the time was somehow captured in the score.
All the qualities that have made Bourne a household name are evident in this production. Cinderella, a mousy type downtrodden by her ebullient stepbrothers and stepsisters, is danced by Kerry Biggin, a touching performer with something of the young Judy Garland in her sturdy vulnerability. Lent temporary glamour by an Angel, the suave Christopher Marney, she falls for an airman (Sam Archer) who is wounded in the bombing. London in wartime has been wonderfully realised by Lez Brotherston’s set, a constantly evolving dystopia of shattered buildings, skeletal terraces and twisted railings silhouetted against the rosy glow of the burning city. One of Brotherston’s many tours de force – and in a highly distinguished career Cinderella has to be one of the best things he has ever done – is the sequence in which the bombing of the Cafe de Paris occurs in reverse, and the smoking remains of the devastated nightclub are magically reshaped into glitterballed elegance.
Bourne’s choreography for his principals is always serviceable, and a morning-after duet for Archer and Biggin, the latter in baby-doll nightie and big pants, is a deft homage to Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet. He’s clearly happier with ensemble work, though, and his cast cheerfully jitterbug, jive and lindy hop their way through the labyrinthine plot. The problem is the music. There’s just too much for the story that Bourne is trying to fit to it, and his response is to introduce a host of inconsequential subplots. Act 1, in which we are introduced to Cinderella’s step-family, a bunch of weirdos and shirkers headed by Michela Meazza’s spiteful, vampish stepmother, is straightforward enough. But Act 2, in the nightclub, is overlong and unclear. We cut confusingly between real and dream sequences, and established characterisations begin to dissolve.
Given the momentous changes wrought by the tide of war, the Angel character seems superfluous. Marney is a terrific dancer, but he looks distinctly odd in his platinum wig and white satin suit, like a mixture of the late Maurice Gibb of the Bee Gees and Karl Lagerfeld, and it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that he’s only there because Prokofiev’s Fairy Godmother music has to be filled. In Act 3, Bourne is once again stranded with too much music, and too little mainstream plot to fill it with. So once the somewhat laborious resolution has been achieved, and the two principals have re-found each other, there’s still a lengthy series of wrap-up sequences (including a detailed Brief Encounter homage) to be sat through. But these structural flaws don’t sink the piece, and must be set against the genius of its overall conception. Biggin delivers a big, all-heart performance, Archer works his handlebar moustache with panache, and judging by the cheers which greeted the curtain calls, his core audience will be more than happy with the piece as it is. Bourne knows his people, and knows that his combination of the quirky, the sentimental and the Hollywood-referential reaches the places that other dance shows don’t.
An interesting furore has blown up in the US dance press, following a review of New York City Ballet’s Nutcracker by the New York Times‘s British-born critic Alastair Macaulay. “Jenifer Ringer, as the Sugar Plum Fairy, looked as if she’d eaten one sugar plum too many; and Jared Angle, as the Cavalier, seems to have been sampling half the Sweet realm,” wrote Macaulay, prompting a torrent of retaliatory fury by those who considered his remarks cruel and misplaced, especially since Ringer is known to have a history of eating disorders. Macaulay came back fighting, suggesting that: “If you want to make your appearance irrelevant to criticism, do not choose ballet as a career.”
Perhaps Devin Alberda, an articulate young dancer with City Ballet, put the counter-case most succinctly. To criticise Ringer’s shape without explaining how it hampered her dancing, he wrote in an open letter to Macaulay “…exposes the facile nature of your snark. You contribute to the objectification of the ballerina’s body further by divorcing her appearance from her movement quality entirely.” Sugarplumgate, as the social media have dubbed the spat, looks set to run and run.