On Sunday 5th May I joined a long queue outside Oxford’s New Theatre; lots of little girls, many in pastel princess dresses and net petticoats, with their mothers.  Inside the auditorium much excitement finding seats, fidgeting to get comfy, sweets and fruit drinks, plastic tiara and fluffy glow wand merchandise.  For this was one of a weekend clutch of performances of My First Cinderella, English National Ballet’s latest initiative to catch a new young and family audience.

To a tailored recording of Prokofiev’s mysterious score ENB’s new Associate Artist George Williamson, aided in direction by Loipa Araujo and on narrative script by Jane Wymark, has condensed the choreographed action into a short ballet pantomime (one hour plus an interval for ice cream).  The reassuring and professional Wymark is narrator in the guise of a palace pastry cook, telling the story, interpreting the characters’ silent gestures and encouraging panto style audience interaction of the “she’s behind you!” variety.  The production makes use of scenery and costumes from Michael Corder’s award winning version from 1996, supplemented by a few additional elements that don’t quite chime with David Walker’s delicately old-fashioned and nocturnal vision, too subdued for the colourful tinselfest implied by the marketing strategy.

Under the label ENB2, and advertised as a collaborative venture between ENB and English National Ballet School, this is in fact a vocational student company comprised of third year dancers of ENB School, for whom it provides pre-professional performing experience.  Committed and enthusiastic though they be, they are clearly students, mostly battling with busy and awkward steps and grimacing brightly in generic mime scenes and ham comic business. Mlindi Kulashe as the Prince showed romantic ardour and a princely elegance of line, a talent to watch developing, a glimpse of dancing that might transcend and inspire to take root for ever in a young imagination.

However among the numerous little girls in the stalls (a total audience at that performance of around 900) I managed to identify just 10 little boys.  I remember the anathema of my own son at that age to little ballet girls, pastel tulle and floral trimmings, that made the idea of his attending a ballet class completely beyond the pale.  The pink publicity and programme imagery accompanying this production is resolutely focused at little girls, reinforcing the unhelpful gender stereotypes the ballet world is burdened with.

I truly admire ENB’s inventive and energetic outreach programme, always exploring new ways to make the company’s work widely accessible.  But I found myself unable to answer troubling questions as to the wisdom of this particular project.  I went to my first ballet at the age of four, and it made an indelible impression.  This was however the full version of a major production conceived to appeal to adults as well as to youthful listeners to bedtime fairy tales.  As a child I was inducted into appreciation of a classic work which remains valid and still full of riches for me to discover decades later.  My First Cinderella is more a cut-price indulgent entertainment catering to infant caprice, adults simply there as chaperones at a children’s party.  Will parents attending have seen anything to encourage them to book to see a full length narrative ballet, or will they thankfully tick this afternoon off for good as having catered to a little girl’s consumer fancy?  The faces of the few dads there suggested the latter.

Does the verbal encouragement of children’s active interaction deflect them from looking, watching and feeding their imaginations with new and unknown expressive possibilities?  There was little opportunity for the dancing to tell the story on its own terms and draw the audience into its own particular world. Cinderella’s ballroom pas de deux with the Prince began with much running to and fro and shouts of “she went that way!”; a number of tinies eventually ignored the stage action to make their own physical response to Prokofiev’s glorious music, running up and down the aisle, leaping and turning.  Hopefully this exhilarating experience may encourage them to pester parents to bring them to see another performance, although perhaps more likely will lead them to participate in dance classes and activity.  But the enjoyment and learning of dance also involves and requires encouragement of concentrated looking.  By catering to a short attention span and implicitly devaluing the efforts of the dancers and ballet’s poetic and story telling capabilities, ENB is arguably undermining its own development of an appreciative audience.

Ballet and dance in general seem to be struggling at the moment either to tell new stories or retell old ones, apparently lacking confidence in the expressive potential of dancing itself; or maybe lacking the relevant knowledge and skills to bring this out.  In April BalletLorent’s Rapunzel disappointed; despite some beguiling interaction between children and adult performers, the dance seemed eclipsed and impoverished by endless props, narration, literal gesture and climbing up the scenery. I wondered if the plethora of dramatic advisers credited had actually stifled the development of danced narrative and characterization through movement.  Liam Scarlett’s disturbingly topical and adult take on Hansel and Gretel at least did not feel the need for verbal narration.  A grimly realistic and suitably creepy set provided atmosphere and interestingly claustrophobic spaces, framing committed performances from great dancers. But Scarlett’s balletic idiom seemed full of clichés, and, with the exception of Stephen McRae’s disjointed Sandman, unable to find sufficiently differentiated modes of expression for the damaged and particular characters.  The haunting filmic score merely accompanied rather than formally challenged a piece ultimately long drawn out and unsatisfying in structure because lacking interest and invention in its dance content.

Critical discussion in the dance press and online of these works and other recent narrative pieces such as Cathy Marston’s Hexenhatz, David Nixon’s The Great Gatsby and Wayne McGregor’s Raven Girl, has thrown up the perceived need for dance to hone its story telling skills and capacity to structure narrative by learning from other art forms, namely drama and film.  Collaboration with a dramaturg is becoming more common, and at the National Choreographers’ Conference this month theatre director and dramaturg Lu Kemp gave interesting insights into how this process could potentially benefit choreographic development.  But it should not be forgotten that dance has its own expressive conventions and abilities, and a particular and not necessarily linear approach to narrative that is possibly more akin to poetry.  As well as looking outward perhaps dance makers need to be examining dance’s own historic heritage more analytically for clues.

A current academic research project in Oxford is attempting to throw light on the ancient form of tragoedia saltata, Roman pantomime in which individual performers enacted through dance the great shared epics and mythic stories of the classical world. Dancers work forensically with classicists to glean clues from ancient texts as to what great performers in this genre did to become the acclaimed stars of their day, and to attempt through imaginative creative practice to evoke something of the spirit of this forgotten art.  I was struck by its potential similarities with the vivid solo storytelling in Indian traditional dance forms, as well as by the compositional challenges of expressing through dance rather than merely gesture.  There may be great resources in such historic narrative forms for today’s choreographers to learn from.

Susie Crow

30th May 2013