It’s been told thousands of times in thousands of ways since the tale was first born in 1634. We are all familiar with the story, mostly by association with the 1950 animated classic, but this season, for a very limited time, the Arts Centre Melbourne is hosting a truly special reproduction of Cinderella by the Australian Ballet.
Imprisoned by her wicked stepmother and selfish, lazy stepsisters, Cinderella has been turned from the cultured lady she was born, to little more than a common slave. Forced to work day and night, she serves her household with grace and respect, all the while enduring ridicule and contempt from her imposter family. Her real mother passed away years ago, leaving behind only memories and an alcoholic father. One evening, a ball is held so that the Prince may select a bride. Cinderella’s fairy godmother transforms Cinderella’s rags into a splendid gown and as the belle of the ball, she captures the Prince’s heart. When she flees at midnight before the spell is broken, she loses her precious glass slipper and the Prince uses it as a means to find his true love.
We know the story. So what is it about this particular production that’s so special? This gift lies in inconceivably creative mise en scene, gifted dancers, and incomparably celestial choreography. Act one opens with an overwhelming air of melancholia. A dark cobblestone background is morosely lit with the somber face of a grandfather clock, a symbol of the story’s patriarchy. The only warmth on stage is a portrait of Cinderella’s lost mother, a mysterious Mona Lisa who observes her daughter’s life from far away. While Cinderella (Leanne Stojmenov) weeps at the foot of the painting, with her father drunkenly stumbling about, the spell is shattered by The Stepmother (Amy Harris) flying into a jealous rage and destroying the painting.
It’s at this point that humour takes over and obliterates the dismal atmosphere. Colour invades the stage as The Stepsisters (Halaina Hills and Ingrid Gow) make their clumsy appearance and the three villainous women compete for Cinderella’s assistance in dressing. The costuming is fabulous — rich pinks, blues and purples illustrate their desire for attention and their outrageous hairstyles exaggerate their mindless tall poppy syndrome.
Despite the klutzy nature of their characters, however, Gow and Hills are beacons of flawless grace and poise. Once our antagonists have departed, The Fairy Godmother (Lynette Wills) takes our Cinderella on a journey of transformation through a fantasy sequence of planets and stars. Once again, costume designer Jerome Kaplan has woven visionary masterpiece, with chorus dancers artfully disguised in flaming streaks of colour as the sun and moon.
It’s here in the second act that we meet our sweet Prince (Daniel Gaudiello), and it’s where the true magic ignites. Amidst a flawless palace setting of marble, satin dresses and velvet coattails, Gaudiello and Stojmenov are simply superb together. Dressed in pristine white, Gaudiello sweeps her from one end of the stage to another in a seamless sequence of leaps, turns and lifts. His agility compliments Stojmenov’s strength and fluidity — in her simple yet divine gown, she is the perfect prima ballerina. Set under a luminous full moon, with a fine layer of mist absolving the stage, this sequence is a beautiful display of masculinity and femininity, and the music they create when combined. And when she flees at midnight, the atmosphere becomes eerie and surreal as she ducks the palace guards.
Alexei Ratmansky has created something spectacular here. His choreography combines grace and agility with a sense of longing, and even mixes in some wonderful physical comedy. A stellar chorus supports the central performers and the music provided by Sergei Prokofiev is theatrical dynamite. Rachel Burke’s lighting design toys with the backdrops and creates the illusion of dreams, the heartbreak of the past and the bright promise of things to come.
It’s a romantic, if slightly outdated and sexist tale, and it has the potential to break our hearts no matter how many times we hear it, and The Australian Ballet has done just that. Exquisite from start to finish.
The details: Cinderella plays the State Theatre, Arts Centre until September 28 and the Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House from November 29 to December 18 — tickets on the company website.