Last Friday Julia and Rosie attended English National Ballet’s Cinderella in-the-round, specially adapted for the Royal Albert Hall by the award-winning choreographer Christopher Wheeldon.
Although we knew the production would be spectacular, it exceeded our expectations!
On the way into the auditorium we were delighted to meet the dancer James Streeter whom we interviewed last autumn. He was clearly very excited about the production.
JULIA: An evening full of great surprises! ENB’s dancers filled the Royal Albert Hall’s grand arena with such energy that the venue’s atmosphere seemed to be enchanted… full of magic.
ROSIE: For me the magic starts right at the beginning, even before the performance begins: you walk into the auditorium and there’s the huge projection of a blue sky with white clouds, and then you hear birds and see them fly over the “sky” just before Sergei Prokofiev’s score starts. So I felt that nature was going to play a really important role in the production.
JULIA: Well it does, doesn’t it? In the original Wheeldon production the stage is dominated by the tree created by Julian Crouch, which apparently had to be “pruned” (as Graham Watts appropriately put it) when Dutch National Ballet brought it to the Coliseum four years ago. Although the actual tree isn’t there in the Albert Hall, it’s still present in the projections onto drapes gathered in the shape of a tree.
ROSIE: It’s all about illusion, isn’t it? It says in the programme that there are over 370 costumes – and they include outfits for fantastical white birds, tree gnomes, and the Spirits of Lightness, Generosity, Mystery and Fluidity, all connected to the tree, as if it’s some magical life force.
JULIA: The idea of the tree came from the version of the tale by the Brothers Grimm, so written in the Romantic era. In fact they seem to have produced two adaptations of the story, seven years apart (1812, 1819) but both featuring the tree.
ROSIE: So there’s no Fairy Godmother and pumpkin, as in the Charles Perrault version (1697).
ROSIE: And Cinderella is held aloft “in” the coach by one of the dancers and holding billowing silk fabric above her head, almost as if she’s flying – she really is being transported! I find this kind of theatre really imaginative, and I love the way that you can see detail because there’s no orchestra pit separating the audience from the performers. You really liked the Fates, didn’t you?
JULIA: Yes, I found them very striking… I often caught myself directing attention to their moves on stage. In my opinion they were telling the audience the fairy tale from Cinderella’s perspective. Because they are so integral to the production: they are always present; they don’t suddenly appear from nowhere in terms of the narrative…
ROSIE: No they don’t, but they do often move in a soft, almost stealthy way, at times performing low level circular and undulating movements in their dark clothes, so that they seem to emerge organically from Cinderella’s surroundings. Sometimes, because of the way they were positioned around the space, I connected them to the idea of representing the four compass points, so that Cinderella is protected from every direction. I’m sure that being performed in the round encouraged this notion.
JULIA: Their movement was such a contrast to the corps de ballet who moved with such overt energy. They really made me sit up in my seat with their constant shift of imaginative patterns. But they also contributed to the narrative in that they framed Cinderella’s entrance to the ball, for example, and then with their angular staccato clockwork movements as the scene built up to Cinderella’s exit.
ROSIE: Of course the energy is enhanced by the large number of dancers – 48 corps de ballet dancers in the ballroom scene, I believe – and by fact that, as always, the ENB corps are so well rehearsed. The cohesion seemed even more important than usual in the round – somehow it’s more exposing. One of the things I liked so much about our Cinderella, Erina Takahashi, is that she has a very distinctive quality of serene stillness that I find draws me in when she performs. And in this ballet with all its wonderful buoyant energy, it seemed important to have a still centre to give it a contrasting focus.
JULIA: On another topic, I love theatre that moves seamlessly from one environment to another, like the columns that are drawn out to represent the palace and the kitchen table that glides round the performance area.
ROSIE: The projections on the floor (designed by Daniel Brodie) like the rain, the dappled light beneath the tree, the decorative marble floor of the ballroom, the clockwork wheels. These all enhance the atmosphere of each scene. I almost fell off my seat when the orchestra was lit up during the ball scene; up to that moment it had been hidden. It really intensified the illusion of being present in a beautiful grand ballroom. And the dancers entering and exiting through the auditorium makes me feel invited into Cinderella’s world.
JULIA: Yes, the orchestra was hidden behind the projections. Those projections were really vital to my appreciation of the ballet; for me they contribute to the darkness that Emma Byrne mentions in her review: “[a] story full of dark frivolity and fantasy, high on romance yet with a strong original feel”. Indeed, there is an element of dark fantasy to the story, and this, for me, combined with the dreamy, mystical set and costumes transform the characters and Cinderella into other-worldly beings. Reminded my of a Tim Burton film…
ROSIE: I agree with Emma Byrne the idea of darkness as far as the dark colour palette is concerned (Cinderella really stands out in her light-coloured costumes), but I was relieved that not all of the gruesome details of the Grimm versions were included. The ones that make me feel queasy are the Stepsisters cutting off parts of their feet (which consequently bleed profusely) to try and force them into the shoe, and then at the wedding the birds pecking the Sisters’ eyes out for their wickedness.
JULIA: Stepmother Hortensia does try to hammer their feet into the shoe, though …
ROSIE: Yes, with distinct glee as well as determination, if I remember rightly. But it seemed to me to be comedic, or at least satirical, rather than truly grisly. There was a lot of light-hearted comedy, I thought, and Sarah Kundi as Stepmother Hortensia looked like she was having outrageous fun “momanaging” her daughters and getting deliciously drunk at the ball.
JULIA: : I think the production reflects ENB’s culture as a company – a sense of togetherness, team work and effort is repeatedly expressed on stage. This reminded me of our conversation with ENB’s first soloist James Streeter when he said that “in the culture of ENB, the notion of a minor role does not in fact exist”; all characters are equally important in setting the scene and atmosphere in their productions.
ROSIE: There are more Cinderellas coming up. I’m looking forward to revisiting the topic later in the year with a Now & Then post. Watch this space!!!
When we started researching biographical ballets, we were under the impression that such ballets were a rarity. Fortunately however, discussions with friends and colleagues revealed a multitude of works, including forgotten and unknown examples, demonstrating that, as in cinema, people’s lives offer a rich source for creation in ballet.
Internationally a number of recent biographical ballets have been based on the lives of iconic figures from the arts, amongst them Broken Wings (Lopez Ochoa, 2016), based on the life and work of Frida Kahlo; John Neumeier’s Nijinsky and Yuri Possokhov’s Nureyev, both from 2017; and Morgann Runacre-Temple’s The Kingdom of Back (2018) about the relationship between Mozart’s elder sister Nannerl, also a composer, Mozart himself and their father.
Our focus for this post is of course driven by the successful addition to the British ballet repertoire that is Cathy Marston’s Victoria for Northern Ballet. Monarchs and royals are no strangers to the ballet stage. Kenneth MacMillan devoted full-evening works to exploring the lives of the Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolevna of Russia (Anastasia, 1971) and Rudolf, Crown Prince of Austria (Mayerling, 1978) in his inimitable full-blooded style. Between these two ballets, in 1976, came Peter Darrell’s Mary Queen of Scots, while in 1995 David Bintley tackled the subject of Edward II through the lens of Christopher Marlowe’s 1592 play. On a smaller scale is the more recent Elizabeth by Will Tuckett (2013), but this choreography incorporates spoken and sung text, as well as onstage musicians.
Like Elizabeth I, Queen Victoria is such a familiar figure to us. Even if we never learnt about her in school, there are documentaries and films available, as well as the current ITV series Victoria, now having completed a third series. Literature is aplenty in the form of both biographies and fiction, diaries and letters, and a Christmas never goes by without a reminder of how she and Albert established family traditions such as gathering round a decorated Christmas tree. In everyday London life their names crop up repeatedly: Victoria Station, the Victoria line, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Royal Albert Hall, the Albert Memorial, the Victoria Memorial. To say nothing of the numerous statues of Victoria throughout the UK …
But Queen Victoria reigned for over six decades, and writings by her and about her were carefully edited. She had a hugely important public persona to develop and project, as well as a private life to lead with its famed tragedies. Consequently, she is frequently portrayed in conflicting ways, which we definitely experienced as we watched documentaries in preparation for this post (“Queen Victoria’s Letters” 1&2; “The Secret Life of Queen Victoria”; “Queen Victoria’s Children 1,2,3”; “King Edward Parts 1&2”). So how can a choreographer create a ballet about Victoria, who was celebrated as wife, mother and widow, as well as empress and queen, over so many years of political change, in a single evening?
The solution that Cathy Marston and librettist Uzma Hameed came up with was to portray Victoria from a very specific perspective – that of Beatrice, Victoria’s youngest daughter. This enabled a sufficiently narrow focus for a two-act ballet, with a selection of a restricted number of characters and events covering the many decades from Victoria as a young woman prior to ascending the throne right up to her death.
While the notion of “narrowness” and “restriction” may initially seem limiting, if you think about it, this process of paring down is absolutely essential in any adaptation that involves a change of medium necessitating any substantial change in length or duration, such as the adaptation of an 800-page book into a 100-minute film, or years of a person’s life into a 300-page volume. Such are the skills necessary to achieve a process of adaptation of this kind, that they have been referred to as a “surgical art” (H. Porter Abbott qtd. in Linda Hutcheon and Siobhan O’Flynn 19).
Victoria premiered on March 16th of this year, and has received a substantial amount of media attention, including interviews with the choreographer, articles, and numerous reviews. Therefore, the fact that the ballet is framed by Beatrice’s rewriting of her Mother’s diaries and presented in flashbacks following Beatrice’s reading in the diaries is well documented. Some of the reviews stand out to us in the way they highlight the writing and rewriting of history (King, Lowe, Monahan, Roy, Winter). Unsurprisingly, this topic of how history is written is close to our hearts, although for some Marston’s delight at finding an “unreliable witness” (qtd. in Dennison) to Victoria’s life may come as a surprise. However, to us this seems to be at the heart of the ballet, not only in how it portrays the events of Victoria’s life, but how it challenges some of our preconceptions of Victoria, and therefore startles and stirs us in equal measure.
If you have been following the ITV series Victoria, you will be familiar with the passion of the young Victoria; however, we see nothing in the series to compare with the sheer sexual pleasure expressed by Marston’s choreography for Victoria and Albert’s wedding night duet (“Northern Ballet’s Victoria”), which on one occasion in our viewing elicited a “wow!” from the audience.
Similarly, our pervasive awareness of Victoria’s love for her consort may inhibit our ability to connect such passion with the disagreements over Albert’s role in politics. With characteristic economy of means Marston conveys these turbulent arguments through tussles over a red box symbolising affairs of state. But in the ballet Victoria’s intransigence is seen at its most passionate in her furious resistance to Beatrice’s desire to marry: bent over double with fists clenched, her rage is palpable. And while we may indeed envision Victoria as domineering and controlling, the ferocity of her physicality collides with the conventional image of Victoria.
Watching Marston’s Victoria makes us feel on the one hand that we’re learning more about the iconic monarch, but on the other hand the experience of having our well-worn vision of Victoria challenged is destabilising. Consequently, and counterintuitively, Victoria seems to become more of a mystery than previously. Perhaps this is because Marston presents her as a human being – as daughter, lover and mother, as well as queen and empress. But equally, because we so clearly witness her through layers of subjectivity. Marston makes this crystal clear through her words in interviews and rehearsals, and no less through the stage action itself. Victoria writes, and Beatrice reads, remembers, discovers, reacts and edits: the lives of Victoria and Beatrice written by Victoria and rewritten by Beatrice with nostalgia and longing on the one hand, and surprise, disapprobation and anger on the other.
Biographical Ballets Then
Unlike in the case of Queen Victoria, the royal lives that MacMillan chose to adapt are probably perceived by British audiences as more than usually mysterious. This is particularly the case for Grand Duchess Anastasia Romanova, who was believed by some to have survived the massacre of the Imperial Russian family by the Bolsheviks in 1917. But the circumstances of Crown Prince Rudolf’s death, the last of the Habsburg dynasty, was deliberately covered up for political reasons and therefore also shrouded in mystery. This sense of mystery has perhaps been intensified by the highly romanticised 1956 Anastasia featuring Ingrid Bergman in the titular role, and Mayerling with Omar Sharif and Catherine Deneuve (1968).
What probably attracted MacMillan to these two historical figures was his inclination towards sombre subject matter and characters who experienced a sense of being an outsider – a theme that MacMillan revisited repeatedly (Parry “Creating Anastasia” 4). But in both cases, as we watch, we gain a sense that the creators were intent on revealing some kind of perceived truth through the ballets, that they were committed to uncovering a mystery and replacing it with historical “reality”.
MacMillan created what was to become the final act of Anastasia in 1967 during his time as Director of the Deutsche Oper Ballett in Berlin. The German city was rife with stories of a woman named Anna Anderson claiming to be Anastasia Romanova, youngest daughter of Tsar Nicholas II, a woman frequently referred to as “Fräulein Unbekannt” (“Miss Unknown”) (Welch 8). Anna had been saved from drowning in a Berlin canal in 1920 and had been living in Germany ever since, and from 1932 striving to legally prove her royal identity (Parry “Creating Anastasia” 4).
This one-act ballet was set in a mental hospital, where Anna is seen reliving life as a member of the Imperial family before the Russian Revolution, and witnessing the assassination of her family before being rescued. Flickering film footage of the Imperial family and Russian political events accompanied by a musique concrète score of fractured, distorted voices and harsh, jarring sounds opens the work. This moves into Bohuslav Martinŭ’s dissonant Symphony No. 6 which complements MacMillan’s visceral, angular and splintered movement material, revealing Anna’s emotional turmoil. Her battle to be accepted as Anastasia is exacerbated by memories of her turbulent personal history, which includes the loss of a husband and child.
Figures from her past – her parents, siblings, Rasputin, Bolshevik soldiers –haunt her, randomly emerging and re-enacting crucial events; at times they are confused with her present alienating company of medical staff and visitors. The theme of the outsider is patently clear: Anna is segregated from any potential community in her current life by the four walls of her hospital room, and she is segregated from the community of her past through their death.
Four years later when MacMillan was working as Artistic Director of the Royal Ballet, the choreographer developed the one-act work into a three-act ballet, portraying the Imperial family in events leading up to World War I (Act I) and the 1917 Revolution (Act II). Although the flashbacks that fill Anna’s mind in the final act are fragmented and muddled, indicating her state of mind, the first two acts follow a clear chronology. Therefore, the characters who haunt her in Act III are initially presented logically and in context, conveying to the audience a sense of factual reality. This means that there is no disconnect between Anastasia’s historical past and Anna’s memories, giving credence to Anna’s claims. And the final moments seem to confirm this: “At the end of the ballet, she stands like a ship’s figurehead at the prow of her bed as it sails round the stage, a small defiant figure floating on a sea of darkness” (Parry Different Drummer 327).
Gillian Freeman, who wrote the scenario for Mayerling, organised three acts that cover the last eight years of Rudolf’s life from his wedding day to his suicide with his young mistress Mary Vetsera. Rudolf’s troubled relationships with women, from his mother and wife to his various mistresses provided rich material for transforming into expressive pas de deux, one of MacMillan’s great talents as a choreographer. It is abundantly clear that the choreographer wanted to portray Rudolf as a tormented human being who had been abused as a young boy, was emotionally neglected, suffered from venereal disease and was obsessed with death. Although MacMillan focused on the emotional aspects of his life, he also dealt with the political pressure that Rudolf faced from his friends campaigning for Hungarian independence.
What we find particularly fascinating is that Freeman insists that she wanted the ballet to be rooted in fact, and that all the events portrayed in the ballet can be historically verified (“Mayerling: South Bank special, part 1, 1978”), including Mary Vetsera’s arrival at Rudolf’s quarters wearing only a coat and a nightdress, his fascination with guns and skulls , and bringing his wife to the tavern managed by his Mistress Mitzi Casper (Freeman “The Uncertain Beyond” 10-11).
Freeman was very insistent that the ballet portray the true circumstances of Rudolf and Mary’s death, so different from the sanitised version of events that was publicly announced in an effort to disguise the truth (“Mayerling: South Bank special, part 4, 1978”).
Therefore, in the case of both Anastasia and Mayerling there is a sense of a mystery solved and a truth revealed: Rudolf’s nature and the events surrounding his death are revealed, as is Anna’s identity.
In 2017 historical novelist Hilary Mantel stated the following:
… history is not the past – it is the method we have evolved of organising our ignorance of the past …It is no more “the past” than a birth certificate is a birth, or a script is a performance, or a map is a journey. It is the multiplication of the evidence of fallible and biased witnesses, combined with incomplete accounts of actions not fully understood by the people who performed them.
In our opinion, one of the aspects that distinguishes Marston’s approach to the creation of biographical ballets from MacMillan’s is her attitude to the past and to history. This reflects the shift in thinking about the past and how we construct both personal and public history that evolved over the second half of the 20th century, and is so wonderfully expressed by Mantel. Rather than attempting to discover unbiased facts, Marston recognises that history depends on “biased witnesses”. Nonetheless, whether consciously or subconsciously, in creating these ballets both choreographers have expertly and inventively deployed not only their choreographic imaginations but also their historical imaginations.
In 1994 DNA tests proved that Anna Anderson was not in fact Tsarevna Anastasia. Yet this is perhaps not the point. All of these ballets can be interpreted in a more open way, helping us to think about issues of identity, the way we see ourselves and make sense of our own pasts and to question assumptions that we make about the way we understand the past from the remnants it leaves behind.
We are very grateful for the support of Rachel Evans, Senior Communications Officer of Northern Ballet, and Ashley Woodfield, Head of Ballet Press of Royal Opera House in the production of this post.
Next time on British Ballet Now & Then … Last Saturday the Royal Ballet staged Margot Fonteyn a Celebration to mark the centenary of the British Prima Ballerina Assoluta’s birth. In response we will discuss Fonteyn plus three of the ballerinas who participated in the celebration: Lauren Cuthbertson, Francesca Hayward and Yasmine Naghdi.