English National Ballet Cinderella In-the-Round Review: A Refreshing Take on a Timeless Tale
English National Ballet Cinderella in-the-round Review June 15, 2023 | Royal Albert Hall – London, England, UK
With enchantment, requited romance, and a concrete canonical formula, the Cinderella story was once a ripe springboard for ballet. But with the thousands of variants across the world (and counting), has this once seemingly timeless tale lost its appeal?
English National Ballet proves it has not.
Last night, the company revived the same imaginative iteration that first dazzled audiences in 2019 – Christopher Wheeldon’s Cinderella in-the-round. This full-length work not only impresses and entertains but also challenges several centuries-old tenets of ballet.
English National Ballet Cinderella in-the-round Review
To begin, much of ballet’s academic vernacular today seems inspired by the picturesque framing of a proscenium stage that unilaterally partitions the audience from the dancers. Wheeldon, however, harks back to the in-the-round roots of ballet by staging a show enjoyable from nearly every angle.
This is not the first production Wheeldon and ENB have staged at such a scale, but it is by far the most elaborate.
In taking on this challenge, however, the production inherits the endemic pitfalls across productions in-the-round, including obstructed sight lines and a threatened milieu, which is perhaps why this format was abandoned before. These challenges, however, are accepted in stride.
To begin, Wheeldon keeps the audience’s attention diverted with sporadic, dispersed entrances from the front of house and scores of grand sweeping, spiraling patterns.
Sets are used sagaciously and sparingly and are supplemented by digital projections that, albeit distracting at times, make believable the atmosphere.
Apart from the obvious, one of the more distinctive features of the show was its defiance of many canonical expectations.
Wheeldon largely rejects the patriarchal, Disney-fied version of the Cinderella story that has been immortalized by choreographic giants Marius Petipa and Frederick Ashton.
Instead, he leans into a more contemporary, feminist-minded culture by presenting the audience with a heroine who is headstrong and daring.
She is someone whom you can both be inspired by and care deeply about. Far from a passive protagonist, Cinderella is more involved in the making of her own story.
Speaking of Cinderella, the titular character is performed by ENB principal dancer Erina Takahashi who, a true phenom, dances with such lucidity and boldness that her movements would be perceptible well beyond the Rausing Circle.
Wheeldon also takes some liberty with the character of the Prince. More than simply Cinderella’s pas de deux partner, Wheeldon’s Prince has a compelling backstory of his own. Prince Guillaume is danced by ENB principal dancer Francesco Gabriele Frola who, with a modest regality, owns both the role and the stage. His performance was nothing short of spectacular.
Following along this thread, the relationship between Cinderella and Prince Guillaume unfolds in a healthier, cinematic fashion with a defined start, middle, and end (happy, of course) that is more apt for modern audiences.
Wheeldon cleverly crafts moments that allow the Prince to fall first for Cinderella’s kindness and for their relationship to grow gradually. In these moments, the principal characters fade into the background, and the supporting characters take center stage.
Marking another break from tradition, Wheeldon makes the brilliant move of casting his step sisters as more inwardly ugly than physically.
In fact, I’ll say that Katja Khaniukova and Fernanda Oliviera who danced Stepsister Clementine and Stepsister Edwina, respectively, had an arduous time of making ugly the objectively awkward sequences. I found even their flexed feet, silly tumbles, and routinely hunched postures to be executed quite elegantly.
Overall, Cinderella’s family dynamic was more delightfully dysfunctional than inimical. I appreciated how Wheeldon took care to humanize his characters.
Stepmother Hortensia (danced by first artist Sarah Kundi), for instance, was not cast as the clear-cut antagonist but rather as someone more apt to animosity and reluctant to growth.
One of my favorite scenes was the Stepmother’s unsolicited solo at the ball in Act II. On second thought, it was more a pas de trois between herself, Cinderella’s father (first soloist James Streeter), and a pair of empty cocktail glasses.
Not to say that she should quit ballet, but Kundi could have an equally promising career as an actress.
Another enjoyable vignette was the unexpected yet welcome relationship that develops between Benjamin, the Prince’s friend, (danced by first soloist Ken Saruhashi) and Stepsister Clementine. Saruhashi and Khaniukova’s on-stage chemistry rivaled if not surpassed that between the principal characters.
As a story ballet, there is much plot that needs to be covered. Thankfully, we had the Fates to move it along.
The Fates, danced by Fernando Carratala Coloma, Henry Dowden, Skyler Martin, and Erik Woolhouse, were a unique addition to the production who compensated where transitions were wonting and allowed the puppetry effects that are normally hidden to be seen from the front.
They, for instance, were the unsung forces behind the remarkable formation of Cinderella’s carriage at the end of Act I. The Fates were the ones that kept the magic alive and made it a memorable show.
Although the Fates got a brief moment to shine in Act II, I do wish they had more opportunity to flex their technical and artistic breadth.
On the whole, the sheer scale of theatrical engineering is astonishing. To pull off such an exuberant, effects-rich production demands a high level of ingenious and acute attention to detail that was not only met but exceeded by the entire creative team.
Jillian Verzwyvelt is a freelance writer who focuses on arts, culture, and travel. Originally from Lafayette, Louisiana, she trained at Lafayette Ballet Theatre before moving to Fort Worth, Texas to pursue bachelor’s degrees in economics and communication studies from Texas Christian University. Here, she discovered how to translate her passion for the stage to the page. Jillian is now working toward a dual master’s degree in global media and communications from the London School of Economics and Political Science and the University of Southern California.