I’m not putting down the classics of the genre when I say that many story ballets, as produced, are clunky, hollow excuses for virtuoso turns. Frederick Ashton’s 1948 Cinderella makes no pretense of heavy drama; it’s a fragrant fairy tale with beautiful choreography that says “happily ever after” from the moment it begins. Yet because of Ashton’s humanity and attention to detail and the charm of the Royal Ballet’s current production, nothing in it seems banal or completely predictable.
There’s no stepmother in this household, only a fond, hapless father and two greedy stepsisters. In Toer van Shayk’s lovely new sets, bare spots on the walls of the family home tell us that the father has sold pictures to support the girls’ pretensions. But his stepdaughters, played by men, are fully dimensional characters—one given to snatching and thwacking, the other timid and forgetful. Their quarrels are replete with music-hall jokes, but when they dance at the ball—and they do dance (with a tall, handsome stick of an officer whom both crave, and a potbellied little Napoleon)—the bolder sister helps jar the other’s memory. And at the end, when no shoe fits, they fondly, sadly console one another. Imagine the delight of seeing these absurd ladies brilliantly played by Sir Anthony Dowell and Wayne Sleep (the latter’s short stature increases the fun).
To counter the comedy, there is no end of glistening steps and patterns. In a magical bower, four fairies offer Cinderella seasonal gifts of dancing: Spring is perky; Summer stretches out in space; Autumn flashes as boldly as the hues of her costume (designs by Christine Haworth); Winter is calm and cool. And the Fairy Godmother (Isabel McMeekan) wraps all their steps into one solo and gives them a little dancing lesson because they’re going to the ball too—along with a pretty lavender-tutu’d entourage—where they meet handsome partners (the prince’s friends). Ashton makes the ball one of those magic nights you hope will never end. The guests dance a lot; they also flirt, quarrel, and maybe drink a little too much, instead of standing around like wallpaper. And some tear after fleeing Cinderella, whom the Prince finds the very next morning.
Ashton gives his hero and heroine everything they need to express their love: While Cinderella dances along excitedly, the prince executes flying beats behind her, as if exploding with astonished joy. Neither leaves the stage during the other’s solo, but watches, entranced. I had the good fortune to see Alina Cojocaru as Cinderella with the splendid former Royal Danish Ballet principal Johan Kobborg as her prince. Cojocaru is one of those rare, lustrous performers whose every move is both crystalline and fluid and seems impelled from within. She wears her exquisite technique lightly and modestly, and it breathes with the emotional climate. Lifted, she opens her whole body to the sky. When she steps into arabesque, she seems to launch her heart.
In Connect Transfer, Shen Wei combines his twin interests—choreography and painting—in a way that goes beyond creating dances and canvases. With paint-dipped mitts and socks, his 11 performers bit by bit draw on the white ground cloth, while their movements print similar designs on floor and air.
That’s the “transfer” part. The “connect” begins the piece as one woman walks onstage and carefully places her hands on the floor, twisting into a difficult position as she does so. One by one, others do the same, with variations. Wearing black and/or gray leotards and tights, and pale makeup that doesn’t outline eyes or lips, they walk in short, gliding steps, looking, in Jennifer Tipton’s cool lighting, like androids performing inexplicable tasks. One of these involves forming curious linkages with one another: her cheek to his shoulder, say, his elbow to her thigh. Maintaining these connections while moving within them creates convoluted sculptures. It seems a very long time before the Flux Quartet, seated at the back, starts playing Kevin Volans’s String Quartet no. 6, with its relentless alternation of two chords.
Some of the floor-painting is without pigment, but we see that the loosely thrashing rolls with hands swiping will later create arcs and circles; the foot-brushing (some of it mic’d) will become straighter lines. Almost every moment of the paint-on-air dancing is brusque and wrenched, straight or angled, rarely curved. At a rapid pace and with tight control, the dancers beat their legs together, maybe with one turned in and twisted behind the other. They lift a leg and cock a hip at the same time, flash their arms out and wrap them in, while the intensity builds and the music shifts to Iannis Xenakis and to a Gyorgy Ligeti sonata (played by Stephen Gosling). They’re brilliant at this constricted way of life. Only in Shen’s brief repeated solo is delicacy or flow allowed; his wrists make small curlicues or part the air.
During the prolonged curtain call, the dancers bring in other colors besides the previous black and red, taking solo bows and leaving as the “painting” progresses. I respect Shen’s concept and unusual style, but find it hard to like the product.