It betrays my less than classical upbringing when I admit that when the tense, rather fraught strains of Sergei Prokofiev’s Cinderella overture launched, I was thinking it sounded like a movie soundtrack; a romantic melodrama perhaps. By the time the first scene scurried into life, where the ugly sisters taunt Cinderella and vie for their step-father’s attention, accompanied by whining strings to capture the sisters’ annoying screeches and complaints, such idle thoughts were gone. I was in.
The Queensland Ballet’s Cinderella, which runs until April 20, is a significant event for two reasons. Firstly, it marks the debut of the man known as Mao’s Last Dancer, Li Cunxin, as the company’s creative director. And it is the first time I’ve ever seen live ballet. OK, the second point is not so significant but for myself and my similarly newbie daughter, it was memorable. This production was joyous, funny, touching and expertly put together. Ballet, I can now say, rocks.
I had been fortunate to meet Li and his choreographer soulmate Ben Stevenson during rehearsals and was already in awe of the effort that goes into making ballet look effortless. I sat in while principal dancers Hao Bin, who dances the Prince, and Meng Ningning (Cinderella), grunted and sweated through a pas de deux practice session and wondered whether ballet is more sport than art.
Both dancers put in what I thought were remarkable performances. Meng, who is on stage for most of the three acts, has the requisite grace and depth, and a hint of humour to believe in. Her expressive face articulated her movements and her eyebrows seemed to work to their own script, emphasising her shape shifts. Hao portrayed strength and gravitas and was appropriately handsome and high-leaping to set hearts aflutter. And he wore tights.
Other standouts on the day were Yu Hui as the Jester and Nathan Scicluna and Matthew Lawrence as the Stepsisters. The former provided a link between the audience and the characters on stage, pulling threads of the storyline together with a series of powerhouse dance moves and impressive air-hangs. For me, his imperious air and guile rather stole the show, as you’d expect from a jester.
The stepsisters were a riot. Traditionally played by men, the stepsisters provide some real belly-laughs and its to the great credit of these two dancers that the audience roaring right to end in fact as Matthew, still in character, flirted ostentatiously and hopelessly with conductor Andrew Mogrelia during the encores.
Prokofiev wrote this ballet (“Zolushka” in Russian) during WWII in demi-exile in what is now Kazakhstan at a time when he and other artists were being rather bullied by a heavier hand towards culture emerging from the Kremlin. Cinderella, is of course a story about recognition and acknowledgement, about a longing for freedom and purpose, and a commentary on dictatorship and repression. But, while such a political context is indeed present, the story is universal enough to reach out to any audience. In fact, the Cinderella story, or versions of it, probably pre-date the Bible, so the archetype is by now part of the human experience.
For we punters in Brisbane, it all worked. Even for this ballet virgin, it was mesmerising. Ballet may be a complex vehicle to tell a generally simple tale, but the pieces here all spin and curve beautifully and the art of it is pure and unquestionable and the entertainment value is high.
(PS: A nice touch on some performances is that the audience are able to watch the dancers warm-up pre-show. It’s like a really good extra on a DVD.)
The details: Cinderella is at the Playhouse, Queensland Performing Arts Centre until April 20. Tickets on the QPAC website.