In Conversation: Cinderella in-the-round, English National Ballet

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Alina Cojocaru and Isaac Hernandez in Cinderella in-the-round (c) Laurent Liotardo

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.

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English National Ballet in Christopher Wheeldon’s Cinderella in-the-round (c) Ian Gavan

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. 

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Alina Cojocaru and Isaac Hernandez in Cinderella in-the-round (c) Laurent Liotardo

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.

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English National Ballet in Christopher Wheeldon’s Cinderella in-the-round (c) Ian Gavan

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 …

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English National Ballet in Cinderella in-the-round (c) Laurent Liotardo

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!!!

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Alina Cojocaru in Cinderella in-the-round (c) Laurent Liotardo

© British Ballet Now & Then

References

Emma Byrne. “Cinderella Review: English National Ballet goes Grimm with a story full of dancer fantasy”. Evening Standard, 7 June 2019, http://www.standard.co.uk/go/london/arts/english-national-ballet-cinderella-review-royal-albert-hall-a4161961.html. Accessed 12 June 2019.

Watts, Graham. “English National Ballet – Cinderella – London”. DanceTabs,  6 June 2019, https://dancetabs.com/2019/06/english-national-ballet-cinderella-london/. Accessed 12 June 2019.  

In Conversation with British Ballet Now & Then: Dance Biopics – The White Crow and Yuli

Rosie and Julia recently attended the premieres and Q&A of both The White Crowa film depicting Rudolf Nureyev’s early life and his decision to defect from the Soviet Union in 1961, and Yuli: The Carlos Acosta Story, a film inspired by the life of Acosta from childhood up to the present day.  We have written about both dancers before in our Male Dancers in British Ballet Now and Then post.

In this In Conversation we share some of our thoughts on common themes that we noticed in the films.

ROSIE: It’s interesting that both film titles are nicknames with specific meanings in Nureyev’s and Acosta’s lives. The Russian expression “white crow” suggests an unusual individual, an outsider. And the name “Yuli”, meaning youthful and powerful, was adopted by his Father, who thought of him as the son of Ogun, an African warrior god.  

JULIA: Yes. It seems to me that The White Crow’s director Ralph Fiennes and screenwriter David Hare intended to show Nureyev’s remarkable career but also his distinctive driven personality: his passion for ballet, determination and rebellious character were extraordinary. Matchless.  And in that sense an outsider.

ROSIE: But Yuli, directed by by Icíar Bollaín and written by Paul Laverty, seems to me to foreground Acosta’s relationship with his father – ballet comes a poor second, if a second at all! The drama in Yuli arises from Acosta’s troubled relationship with his Father, and from his reluctance to dance and to leave his family and country. Nonetheless, it is a very colourful film, perhaps reflecting Acosta’s love for Cuba; whereas in The White Crow colour is reserved for the scenes set in 1961 Paris, which represented freedom to Nureyev. The use of colour brings out some of the contrasts in the films. 

JULIA: I think there’s a difference in political agenda too. The White Crow demonstrates the impact of socio-political norms established by the Soviet Union on the life of dancers at that time despite the relaxation under Nikita Khrushchev. In my opinion, this is one of reasons for its potential success in attracting diverse audiences to the cinema… that’s the vibe that I got from the Everyman premiere.  But perhaps not the same can be said in relation of Yuli, a film that primarily attracts balletomanes… although it might have a wider appeal. 

ROSIE: Overall, The White Crow strikes me as an exploration and musing on the first 23 year of Nureyev’s life. The drama arises from his struggle to catch up on lost time in his training, clashes with the authorities and the slow build-up to the climax of his defection at the airport. Although film critic Peter Bradshaw questions the relevancy of the dance scenes, I think theseare used to demonstrate Nureyev’s environment, ballet as the driving force of his life, his determination and dedication, and his talent.  So they’re absolutely integral to the film, to the depiction of his character and circumstances.

JULIA: I agree. In my opinion Oleg Ivenko showed brilliant dancing and thoughtful, considered acting. In The White Crow’s Q&A, Ralph Fiennes commented that when casting for Nureyev’s role he wanted to find a dancer who was able to act so that this would be a more realistic representation on screen. For example, consider the ways in which a dancer stands and walks – this had to be captured. Yet, I wonder how Ivenko prepared for this role in terms of Nureyev’s personal style?

ROSIE: Yes, dancers move differently and look different in everyday life. Fiennes himself plays Alexander Pushkin, Nureyev’s ballet teacher in Leningrad. He was just as I imagined – taciturn, yet at the same time interested and kind.  His body language too reminded me of snippets of Pushkin’s teaching that I’ve seen. I understand from the Q&A at the British Film Institute that the producers consulted Mikhail Baryshnikov – he was also pupil of Pushkin’s and has talked of his teaching with great admiration – so I’m convinced this helped Fiennes with his portrayal of Pushkin. I also admire Fiennes’ Russian, and the fact that all the scenes set in the Soviet Union were in spoken in Russian.

JULIA: The use of foreign language is particularly effective in both films. The Russian dialogue at the start of the The White Crow, when Pushkin is being interrogated in the aftermath of Nureyev’s jump to freedomsets a powerful tone and atmosphere.  On the other hand, the dance scenes in Yuli don’t convey the same sense of ongoing daily discipline required to fulfil a talent such as Acosta’s. However, similarly to The White Crow, the soundtrack and notably the music in the dance scenes contributed to a more realistic representation of the atmosphere and environment of a ballet class and stage performances. 

ROSIE: For ballet lovers I think that evoking the environment of the studio is really important. In Yuli the dance scenes are used for a range of purposes.  Acosta’s initial reluctance to dance is made really clear in the ballet studio scenes; then his change of attitude towards ballet is shown through his reaction to a performance of Le Corsaire. These scenes are brilliantly acted by Edlison Manuel Olbera Núñez, who to me looked like he could have been Acosta as a child…. One of the most interesting aspects of the film was how family relationships were explored through dance as well as through spoken sequences.  Acosta dancing the role of his father added a layer of poignancy here.  But it also offered an opportunity for Acosta to showcase his company. So the role of dance was integral to both films but used rather differently.

JULIA: The flashback structure in Yuli and The White Crow allowed particular connections to both dancers’ upbringing, training, and success as professional dancers to be represented on the screen. For example, as The White Crow progressed it became really clear how Nureyev’s personality was gradually being shaped through the flashbacks portraying his childhood and relationship with his mother and teacher. 

ROSIE:  Yes, you saw a real logic in the structure.  Wendy Ide, in her review for The Guardian, suggests that The White Crow is an “uneven film” and “lacks the flowing logic” of ballet that Pushkin encourages in his students. In my opinion, however, Nureyev didn’t have a flowing logic in his life; rather, he found that through ballet. Therefore, it didn’t matter to me that I didn’t quite follow the logic of the structuring.

ROSIE: I was glad that The Guardian produced two reviews of The White Crow, but wouldn’t it have been more interesting to compare one review by a film critic and one by a dance critic?

JULIA: Or even better, they could do an In Conversation review like the one we’ve done here!

References

Bradshaw, Peter. “The White Crow review – Ralph Fiennes brings poise to ballet biopic”. The Guardian, 20 Mar. 2019, http://www.theguardian.com/film/2019/mar/20/the-white-crow-review-ralph-fiennes. Accessed 7 Apr. 2019.

Ide, Wendy. “The White Crow review – a jumpy spin on Nureyev”, The Guardian, 24 March 2019, http://www.theguardian.com/film/2019/mar/24/the-white-crow-review-rudolf-nureyev. Accessed 7 Apr. 2019. 

“Yuli”. The Royal Opera House,  www.roh.org.uk/productions/yuli-the-carlos-acosta-story-by-iciar-bollain. Accessed 7 Apr. 2019.