Dance, Reviews, Stage

Cinderella review (Arts Centre, Melbourne)

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Cinderella might be an age old fairy tale, but the sentiment rings true today. 

A young woman is trapped in slavery and treated abysmally. 

While the rich around her have power and mobility, she can only dream of a better life as she fights to survive. 

However, where the story veers from reality is that unlike many with similar hopes, Cinderella’s come true. She can turn her back on repression and embrace a promising future. 

In The Australian Ballet’s latest production, choreographed by Alexei Ratmansky, Cinderella lives in an environment that is surreal and absurd. 

The company debuted the work in 2013, and it appeared back on the calendar this year after the originally scheduled Graeme Murphy ballet, The Happy Prince, was postponed.

The set and costumes by Jerome Kaplan conjure Salvador Dali’s work, with mixed references to the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s. 

A subversive approach sees the fairy godmother dressed as a beggar, the mean stepmother (Dana Stephenson) appearing quite glamorous, the ugly sisters ‘Skinny’ (Ingrid Gow) and ‘Dumpy’ (Jill Ogai) wearing shoes on their heads, women in trousers rather than gowns at the ball, and the usual ‘four seasons’ turned into ‘celestial whirl’ of dancers appearing as planets.

It is all performed to the somewhat brooding score by Sergei Prokofiev, with the strong string set evoking the sense that something is a little off kilter, or fortunes are about to change. Visual projections of planets, oceans, and foreign lands designed by Wendall K. Harrington serve to evolve the story across time and place. 

Supporting these foundations, the dancers project amplified character traits such as comedic slapstick, arrogance, jealousy and snobbish disdain. 

The physical movements are often deliberately awkward – contrasting from expansive to tight and stilted with speed. Legs go from being classically turned out to parallel mid sequence; partnered lifts that are set up to be breathtaking suddenly twist into obscure angles; jumps that would normally be heroic become constricted mid-flight. 

It’s a potentially polarising approach – and while the performers on opening night in Melbourne were superb, for this reviewer the extensive pantomime and dance style proved a test of patience. 

Thankfully, some epic pas de deuxs between Cinderella (Ako Kondo) and the Prince (Chengwu Guo) broke the spell. The choreography for these two is more open and fluid than for the rest – and offers more potential to capture the heart.

Kondo danced flawlessly in both her ‘cleaning rags’ and glistening gold gown, portraying Cinderella’s despair, anger and joy as her journey progressed. 

Guo gave the prince a ‘playboy’ air mixed with loneliness. Despite the endless opportunities quite literally falling at this feet, Guo made it clear the prince only wanted the love of Cinderella. And Guo’s moves, like those of Kondo, were sublime – from wide leaps to impeccable turns and seamless partner work.

A bit like the story itself, this production had some moments of magic. But just like in reality, there were times in which this reviewer dreamed things could be just that little bit better.

Until March 28

Image: Ako Kondo, right, as Cinderella. Photo by Jeff Busby

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