Het Muziektheater, Amsterdam, The Netherlands; December 17 & 18, 2014

David Mead

Christopher Wheeldon's 'Cinderella' for Dutch National Ballet, here with Anna Tsygankova and guest prinicpal Matthew Golding.  Photo © Angela Sterling

Christopher Wheeldon’s ‘Cinderella’, here with Anna Tsygankova and guest prinicpal Matthew Golding.
Photo © Angela Sterling

At a first viewing, it is rather overwhelming. Christopher Wheeldon’s “Cinderella” includes some imaginative changes to the usual story, and the Dutch National Ballet dancers were certainly outstanding, but there’s no escaping it: what really takes the breath away are the designs, which are not so much a visual feast as a sumptuous banquet.

At the heart of everything is American puppeteer Basil Twist’s magical tree, brought forth by the tears the child Cinderella weeps at her mother’s grave and that comes to symbolise perfectly her spirit. It dominates the stage. But it doesn’t just stand there; it swells and comes to life. It billows and sways in the imaginary breeze. It is under its spreading arms that Cinderella is transformed into a dazzling beauty before the ball, it is from it that her carriage appears, and in its shade that she is married. It is also from the tree that Cinderella’s carriage is born, in actuality no more than four carriage wheels and four horses heads. The sight of her carried aloft, her golden train billowing behind her, not unlike some images of Boudica, was a startling end to Act I.

Alongside that are Julian Crouch’s decors and designs – sort of high Victorian fashion with a modern edge, although for all the glamour of the ballgowns and regal dress of those at court, most beautiful of all is the simple blue dress that Cinderella wears at home. I’m not sure why he decided to make the Prince look like a refugee Nutcracker at one point, though. Crouch was also responsible for the eye-catching mobile that sits above the action for much of Act III, formed from the line of sixteen chairs previously used by those waiting to try on the slipper. And let’s not forget Natasha Katz’s excellent light design and Daniel Brodie’s clever video projections.

Whether deliberate or not, Wheeldon’s telling of the story looks and feels very different from the familiar Ashton. Inspired by the Brothers Grimm tale, which he describes as “more poetic than other versions”, and in collaboration with librettist Craig Lucas, he has made some significant changes, especially in Act I where the action moves time and location several times. A couple of those scene changes are a tad clunky and interrupt the flow but the narrative works well overall.

Most notably, and most successfully, Wheeldon gives more depth and background to the main characters while still maintaining a family-friendly lightness. He shows us Prince Guillame as a child, and gives him a best friend, Benjamin, whose later falling for one of the stepsisters adds a neat subplot. In Act I, the Prince trades places with Benjamin to deliver the invitations (as in Rossini’s “La Cenerentola”). The seeds of future love are clearly sown when, posing as an urchin, it is the Prince who calls at the house and who is offered food and warmth by Cinderella. It’s an episode that links to, and makes sense of, subsequent events.

Cinderella, meanwhile, is no downtrodden, lonely waif. True, save for her father, no-one in the family is particularly nice to her, but her stepmother and stepsisters are rarely downright horrid either. Her dance, even in the kitchen, is often loaded with joyful steps. Both Igone de Jongh on 17th and Jurgita Dronina on 18th demonstrated she is very much a young woman whose happy, free spirit is never far from the surface.

Dutch National Ballet in Christopher Wheeldon's 'Cinderella'. Photo © Angela Sterling

Dutch National Ballet in Christopher Wheeldon’s ‘Cinderella’.
Photo © Angela Sterling

For all de Jongh’s innocent appeal in the kitchen, however, when it came to the ball there was something of an emotional disconnection with Jozef Varga’s Prince Guillaume. While impeccably executed in one sense, their dance lacked much in the way of feeling. Indeed, Varga’s relationship and interplay with Remi Wörtmeyer’s Benjamin was notably stronger.

There were no such problems the following evening, when Dronina and James Stout were as much one as you could have wished them to be. The connection was there right from their first meeting in the kitchen, when he was dressed as a pauper. Dronina’s characterisation also appeared to have more little touches and more detail. She demanded you watch her right from the start. And in Stout she had a Prince who was everything a prince should be: strong, handsome, good-mannered.

In amongst all the overwhelming designs and more detailed narrative, Wheeldon’s choreography is generally effective, and occasionally soaring. Rather like the costumes, the highlight is the delightfully modest and beautifully understated Act III pas de deux for Cinderella and the Prince that takes place under the tree after he has rediscovered her. It’s a moment of genuine connection between them. It’s full of tender lifts but the lack of flashy steps makes it seem so much more real and certainly speaks much more vividly about their feelings than any set of fouettés or a grand manège can ever do.

Wheeldon also clears the stage for the big ballroom pas de deux, the other guests moving outside to watch the fireworks. The staging here is a little saccharin-sweet, and it’s the one place where the ballet gets rather Disney, the setting looking remarkably similar to the same scene in the 1950 animated movie. The dance does include some showier moments, although the trickiest, a spectacular cartwheeling lift over the Prince’s back, while impressive, seems rather out of place and all about gymnastics rather than emotion.

The grand waltz at the ball is disappointing. There’s lots of pleasant lines crossing and lifting, but Wheeldon overcomplicates the canon and variations, and constantly interrupts the patterns with the result that the power of the dance, and the music, is significantly diminished.

This is also a “Cinderella” without fairies. Instead of a Fairy Godmother, Wheeldon conjures up four fates, sort of guardian angels, who pop up almost continuously. Seen only by the audience, in their dark harem trousers and gold painted faces, they guide our heroine towards her destiny, making sure that the expected happy ending does actually happen.

For the four seasons, Wheeldon opts for dances for groups of five, with Cinderella occasionally joining in, described as the Spirits of Lightness (Spring), Generosity (Summer), Mystery (Autumn) and Fluidity (Winter). The choreography here is excellent with plenty of light jumps, changes of direction and sharp, quick petit allegro. The green, orange, russet and blue costumes certainly reflect each season, but what is missing is much suggestion of what each supposedly represents. Regardless, it’s a move that provides opportunities for other soloists to shine, and I was particularly taken by Young Gyu Choi and Maiko Tsutsumi who led Summer and Winter respectively on 18th.

Dutch National Ballet in Christopher Wheeldon's 'Cinderella'. Photo © Angela Sterling 2

Dutch National Ballet in Christopher Wheeldon’s ‘Cinderella’.
Photo © Angela Sterling 2

As one would expect, Wheeldon tosses in a fair slice of humour, centred mostly around the two stepsisters and their stepmother’s drunkenness at the ball, but there are also moments for the three exotic princesses at the ball too (ladies to be equally as much avoided), and a clever, cartoon-like chase. Thankfully, Wheeldon avoids turning his stepsisters into clowns. Spoiled they may be, but unfunny, over the top, caricatures of pantomime dames they are not. A suggestion that they could actually be real people works wonders. Wheeldon even manages to find both enough serious dance that we can see just how good they are. On 18th, Megan Zimny Kaftira was especially amusing as Edwina (and kept it up right through the curtain calls), while on both evenings, the more timid Clementine (Suzanna Kaic on 17th, Milena Sidorova on 18th) eventually found the soft spot in everyone’s hearts after she and Benjamin fell for each other at the ball.

The rest of the company danced with a vigour that helped give an extra layer of freshness to what can sometimes seem a well-worn story.

Despite the odd minor reservation, Wheeldon’s “Cinderella” is a magical journey; a ballet full of comedy and romance, and one in which he successfully brings out the characters’ personalities through the steps as much as through acting. There are some musical-narrative glitches, most obviously it is not explained beforehand why the clock striking twelve is so important. But his changes are largely successful, his narrative always clear and easy to follow. It certainly kept both audiences enthralled throughout. And it’s a trip London balletgoers will be able to take next summer, when Dutch National brings it to the Coliseum.

Sadler’s Wells presents Dutch National Ballet in Christopher Wheeldon’s “Cinderella” at the London Coliseum, July 8-11, 2015. See the Sadler’s Wells or Coliseum websites for details.