At one time, three or four decades ago, Cinderella was naïvely regarded as a sort of children’s work, Prokofiev’s answer in the ballet world to Peter and the Wolf. But for all its ingratiating numbers and fairy-tale story, it’s a complex work, a mixture of fantasy, comedy, romance, desperation and, some on the other side of that once-formidable curtain used to argue, class warfare. You can dismiss the last rather laughable view, but all the other elements are there, and perhaps a little more. Today, we see this ballet as the ultimate triumph of the underdog, or as the defeat of bullies (which may be the other side of the same coin), or as liberation from one’s nemesis. Whatever. In the end, some children will actually like Cinderella but not quite the way they like Peter and The Wolf, with its usually friendly narrator, or The Nutcracker.
Australian ballerina Elisha Willis dances the role of Cinderella and Glasgow-born Iain Mackay portrays the Prince. Both are excellent. But they don’t steal the show—if anyone does, it’s Carol-Anne Millar as Dumpy. She is hilarious in most of her scenes, and while comedy in this fairy-tale love story should be thought of as a secondary element, one cannot help but stay focused on her antics whenever she’s on stage. She’s clad in an unflattering fat suit, which must be brutal to wear in a nearly two-hour ballet. At any rate, she has a deft comedic sense — a subtle slapstick sense too, if slapstick can ever be subtle. Marion Tait as the stepmother is evil in a very likeable way. It’s her acting more than her dancing - good as that is - that wins you over. As for the others, there isn’t a weak dancer in the cast.
The costumes are splendid in their regality and, in the case of Cinderella’s domestic wear, austere simplicity. The choreography of David Bintley is imaginative and fully engaging. The sets, by John Macfarlane, are brilliantly conceived. The Victorian basement kitchen where Cinderella cares for her cruel stepsisters is imposing as is its dank, yet cartoonish atmosphere. The grand ball has a bright yet, oxymoronically, dark atmosphere. When Dumpy and Skinny enter the ballroom the mood turns colorful and hilarious and bright. When Cinderella finally arrives it is festive, yet filled with passion and romance, and with foreboding. You want the sunlight to come in, but the clock strikes twelve, and … Well, you know the story.
The performance is not quite complete. The Third Act was pruned, as The Prince and the Cobblers, Oriental Dance and shorter numbers were cut. Oddly, the First Gallop was allocated to the Second Act here, when in fact it is the second number of the Third Act. But these are ultimately minor quibbles in an otherwise excellent offering.
It is indeed excellent, for while other Cinderellas by Rozhdestvensky, Ashkenazy, Previn and Pletnev may have featured slightly better orchestral playing, this one, with mostly moderate tempos, is largely competitive. Actually, I’m not sure that the rough-and-ready Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra played better for Rozhdestvensky, but they did play with commitment even if their brass was at times over-the-top. This effort, led by Belgian Koen Kessels, is intelligently conceived and well played, despite a few imprecisions. The sound and camera work are excellent, and from most other perspectives this Cinderella is an utterly first-rate production.
There are other video versions of Cinderella available from the Zurich Ballet, on Bel Air Classiques, the Paris Opera Ballet (also with Kessels conducting), on Opus Arte, and several more. The Paris version places the story in Hollywood - the Prince is a movie star and the Fairy Godmother a producer! - and thus some of the fairytale quality is lost. I haven’t seen the Zurich production, but suspect it might well be a worthy alternative. In any event, this Birmingham effort is a first-rate offering and more than merits your attention.