Grandstand seats surrounded by the Coliseum’s ornate ivory, gold and purple, a rare London visit by one of Europe’s major ballet companies showing a new production set to one of the 20th century’s most ravishing ballet scores played live by the Royal Ballet Sinfonia – what’s not to like? High expectations for a summer treat.

This being well known fairy tale Cinderella, although I bought a programme I did not read the proffered synopsis before viewing. I also did not have access to a cast sheet until afterwards. A salutary test for any narrative work; what was the story made visible through the dancing and stage action? Christopher Wheeldon working with playwright and librettist Craig Lucas has taken the version from the Brothers Grimm as his guide, which he sees as darker and more serious than that of Perrault. They have removed the fairy godmother – and substituted her with four Fates – men in gold masks and dark blue ninja like apparel who according to programme notes “offer Cinderella guidance and protection”. They did a lot of busy dancing, moped in corners in the kitchen and dutifully lifted Cinderella around, but crucial advice about leaving the ball by midnight was nowhere apparent in their action. Which left me wondering why on earth Cinderella having found her prince would need to leave the ball in such a hurry?

The four seasons of Prokofiev’s score are now ensembles of Spirits intended to embody qualities of Lightness, Generosity, Mystery and Fluidity and to teach Cinderella the steps she will need to dance at the ball; given the seasonally coloured costuming and interchangeable movement of this busy technical divertissement this modified significance escaped me. A prologue kills off Cinderella’s real mother in record time, her presence translated to the tree that grows magically from her grave watered by Cinderella’s tears. We are also introduced to Prince Guillaume and his friend Benjamin as small boys in the palace running ragged an over made up woman with an improbably large bosom. I gathered from the programme that this caricature was apparently “Madame Mansard, dance teacher” – despite a lifetime spent with dance teachers I would never have guessed this.

It is not enough that literary back-stories to archetypal characters and plots are fabricated and written up in the programme notes if they are not visible in credible symbolic danced action on stage. For dancing is deeply symbolic, and attempts at updating ancient fairy tales and myths to appeal to contemporary tastes should consider the perhaps unintended messages that can be transparently conveyed in a non-verbal medium. As a woman I could not help remarking that barring Cinderella, and with the removal of the fairy godmother, virtually every female character in this version was either grotesque, silly or malicious; even the corps de ballet were ultimately reduced to hysterical boy band worshippers desperate to don the slipper and win Matthew Goulding’s pop idol blond prince, who seemed genuinely happiest larking around with his mate Benjamin (I enjoyed the fleet and cheerful dancing of Remi Wörtmeyer in this role). Nadia Yanowsky, enthusiastic in glasses as Stepsister Clementine, eventually emerged more sympathetically from much ham slapstick to find happiness with Benjamin; but I found the vulgar depictions of the man-eating princesses from other lands on the borderline of offensive, and cheap jokes such as a hung-over stepmother miming vomiting into a soup bowl unnecessary and unfunny. Meanwhile Wheeldon’s Cinderella is constantly manipulated and carried around by her attendant Fates, she cannot even be trusted to end her ballroom scene solo on her own; this does not convey being a young woman “in charge of her destiny”, as the programme notes state was the choreographer’s intention. Confusingly, for Anna Tsygankova’s ripped muscular bare legs, revealed when turned upside down by her cortège, suggested neither princess nor put-upon skivvy, but athletic gymnast.

What of the dancing? Wheeldon’s choreography is admired for fluid neo-classical invention and a modern take on combining traditional balletic vocabulary in flowing phrases. The dancers luxuriate in his fashionable lines and shapes and complex partnering. Yet here he seems little interested in the potential expressiveness and dramatic significance of spatial design, and largely avoids repetition, that crucial element which enables viewers and listeners to apprehend the structuring of music and movement, and to perceive transformations of character and emotion through the subtle contrast and shifting context of memorable motifs, so apparent in Prokofiev’s shimmering score. Lacking such vital architecture of meaning even the most fluent combinations of steps can become ultimately boring; despite the rapturous grandeur and poetry of its accompaniment the pas de deux at the heart of the ballet seemed to meander aimlessly through romantic clichees. Occasionally a moment of stillness or simplicity, such as a gently swaying ensemble opening the mysterious ballroom waltz, had a delicacy of feeling to match that of the music; but much of the ensemble dancing felt busy and cluttered, not helped in the ballroom by a perpetual agitation of heavy flouncing skirts and full frock coats in harsh dense colours whose random arrangement seemed in visual contradiction with the formal patterns of the dance. Like the choreography, the ballet’s design appears an assemblage of visual elements which while sometimes vibrant or imaginative in their own right often seemed mismatched and lacking in coherent dramatic or pictorial purpose, in need of rigorous editing.

I wanted to like this production but left disappointed and irritated. Very few choreographers get the opportunity to make a full-length work for a large ballet company. This is Wheeldon’s third. I find it disheartening that given his experience and the institutional support he receives, he seems to have little sense of the particular means whereby dancing may effectively tell stories, and that what you write in the programme is not necessarily what will be read on the stage. Three days later Prokofiev’s music was still ringing in my ears; it deserved better.

Susie Crow

12th July 2015