The Australian Ballet's world premiere of Alexei Ratmansky’s Cinderella

Gracia Haby
Bodyclock: Alexei Ratmansky's Surrealist Cinderella, for Fjord Review
October 2013

Choreography: Alexei Ratmansky
Music: Sergei Prokofiev
Costume and set design: Jérôme Kaplan
Lighting design: Rachel Burke
Projection design: Wendall K. Harrington

State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne
Friday 20th September 2013
Tuesday 24th September 2013


Tick, tock. Tick, tock. Sergei Prokofiev’s beautifully eerie time keeping score. Tick, tock. Tick, tock. A row of conical hedges transform with one rotation into metronomes. Tick, tock. Tick, tock. A dancer’s leg strikes twelve, over and over. Tick, tock. Tick, tock. A leg can swing like a pendulum, oscillating back and forth from a central point. A body has become a clock, proving Salvador Dali true: "every portrait can be transformed into living room furniture"[i], and thus Mae West’s lips become a sofa on which to sit. The body can become an object and an object can become a body. Time and transformation are the threads that bind this new production of The Australian Ballet’s Cinderella together. True to the score, Alexei Ratmansky’s choreography coupled with Jérôme Kaplan’s costume and set design revels in this glorious sense of time being measured, and the optical illusion of surrealism whose transformative powers delight in catching you in their illusion, thus making this fairytale complete.

The passing of time, it is in the orbit of the planets that spin clockwise and anticlockwise. There flies Mars, Neptune, and Venus! It is in the apparent suspension of time that sees dancers appear weightless. Indeed, as the Celestial Bodies fly Cinderella through the solar system, she appears to defy gravity. So at ease, her suspended form calls to mind Dali’s The Sleep (1937). The very marking of time, it is the chase the orchestra perform with alacrity and apparent delight. One moment an almost demonic gallop, the next a lyrical sweep to rival the swirl of costume. It is a score perhaps not as well known as Romeo and Juliet (but it should be) and it is one that has a beautiful quality of measuring, keeping, and altering time from the moment it commences. You begin to almost see the notes leaping up from the orchestra pit and taking over the theatre. Ratmansky’s Cinderella evokes the overwhelming sensation that this is what ballet sounds like and what Prokofiev’s music looks like.

Cinderella is a beautiful collision of opposites. The grotesque plays opposite the romance of the fairytale with the happy ending we are assured of from the outset, with or without the transportation conjuring feats performed by mice and pumpkins. There can be little doubt that to bite into one of the stepsisters or the stepmother would be fatal: "sugary on the outside and venomous inside."[ii] Comedy plays opposite heartache, and real time plays opposite suspended time. It combines the timeless with the ephemeral, and the classic with the modern with all the ease of a Georgio de Chirico painting. With its ambiguous spatiality and the power to free objects from their normal contexts, the surrealist’s landscape of the unknown seems an ideal landscape in which to place Cinderella. If you are going to explore the dream, longing (both romantic and familial), and by that reasoning, the fairytale, who better to have as guide than the surrealists? Celebrating the laws of chance and a sense of different layers has the effect of hand in glove that one wonders why you’ve not earlier seen Cinderella in surreal setting such as this. From René Magritte we have the frame within a frame within a frame of the staging that works so cleverly to alter the audience’s sense of space and time. And we also have the suggestion of conflict between the hidden and the visible that runs through much of Magritte’s work echoed at the close of act II when the Prince cannot 'see' Cinderella for her rags. There but not there, I doubt I have ever been more moved by an act’s close, such is this production’s understanding of the power of drama and story telling. The story told through lengthy mime—gone. In its place, a body to speak, and speak it does in the lead up to midnight replete with its twelve chimes. In hearing the orchestra play the Waltz-Coda at the end of act II, I am generally confused as to just who is moving: the characters on stage or the whole theatre? Come Midnight hedges-cum-metronomes glide, encircle and ensnare, and Cinderella and the Prince run circles, and the audience, too—we are moving aren’t we? I am reminded of Prokofiev’s own words in describing the sense of confused, fused fantastical movement when at a young age he saw Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty at the Bolshoi Theatre: "...but when they, that is the cast in Sleeping Beauty, where moving along in a boat whilst the stage set moved toward them, your gaze, after having being glued to the spectacle for a time, involuntarily shifted and you looked around and it seemed that the theatre was also moving until finally you couldn’t tell whether it was the stage or the theatre or your own head that was moving."[iii]

In Act III, as the Prince searches and almost courts temptation as much as he is tempted, there in the projections of Wendall K. Harrington, a nod to de Chirico’s The Uncertainty of the Poet (1913) with its train passing in the distance, and a conversation with cubism occurring in the foreground. The anguish and disquiet of a de Chirico 'backdrop' without the painterly strokes of the original source, seeks to enhance what the music describes. Having explored the cosmos, the Magritte frame within a frame, and danced between columns of malachite that give the impression of reaching up, up, up to the heavens and echo those of St. Isaacs in St. Petersburg, Russia, spatial depth is now flattened. This is no naturalistic view. We are covering vast distances in but a blink of the eye, as befits a fairytale, slipper in hand. At the intersection between conscious and unconscious, we are, as André Breton described, 'drawing a spark' from the contact of "two widely separate realities without departing from the realm of our experience."[iv] Alongside its pure classicism and movement as narrative vehicle, this is a Cinderella that enjoys telling its story through altered proportions and sensory distortion. I was lucky enough to see this performance twice, with two different casts and from two different positions in the State Theatre. Both times proved a sensory delight, and I particularly liked that each offered something different, be it the cast or my seat. From the balcony, the staging and lighting held me transfixed, and I marvelled at the muted jewel of a palette, the exaggerated forms, whether wigged hair or posterior, and the overall inviting flow.

Together Madeleine Eastoe and Kevin Jackson (Friday 20th), and Lana Jones and Daniel Gaudiello (Tuesday 24th) gave such the impression of floating that it is easier to believe them paper pieces of a Max Ernst collage. With a cosmos to soar through, the pull of a love story to traverse, the tick, tock of the clock, "we are all at the mercy of the dream, and we owe it to ourselves to submit to its power when awake."[v] (Only next time, can I sport an adapted surrealistic Elsa Schiaparelli Shoe Hat too?)

[i] Espace Dali, Monmartre
[ii] Konstantin Sergeyev discussing the musical and scenic characterisation to Prokofiev, Music Note, Professor Mark Carroll, The Australian Ballet’s Cinderella programme, 2013
[iii] Prokoviev, Exploring Music with Bill McGlaughlin
[iv] "It is the marvelous faculty of attaining two widely separate realities without departing from the realm of our experience, of bringing them together and drawing a spark from their contact; of gathering within reach of our senses abstract figures endowed with the same intensity, the same relief as other figures; and of disorientating us in our own memory by depriving us of a frame of reference — it is this faculty which for the present sustains Dada." André Breton, Max Ernst (1921), trans. Ralph Manheim, in Max Ernst: Beyond Painting and Other Writings by the Artist and His Friends, ed. Robert Motherwell, The Documents of Modern Art, Wittenborn, Schulz, New York, 1948, p. 177
[v] J.-A. Boiffard, P. Eluard & R. Vitrac, Preface, La Révolution surréaliste (The Surrealist Revolution), ser.1, no.1, December, 1924. page 1 (translated by Dawn Ades)

Madeleine Eastoe
Lana Jones

The Prince
Kevin Jackson
Daniel Gaudiello

Cinderella’s Stepmother
Dana Stephenson
Amy Harris

Skinny Stepsister
Robyn Hendricks

Dumpy Stepsister
Reiko Hombo
Halaina Hills

Related post,
'We are all at the mercy of the dream'


Additional written pieces for Fjord Review, 2012 – 2016
Vitesse: The Australian Ballet, featuring choreography by Jiří Kylián, William Forsythe, and Christopher Wheeldon
Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch: Nelken (Carnations), choreographed by Pina Bausch
Double Blind, choreographed by Stephanie Lake
This is What's Happening, Alice Dixon, Caroline Meaden and William McBride
Illuminated, Sydney Dance Company and Australian Chamber Orchestra
Limbo, as part of Melbourne Festival 2015
Last Work: Batsheva Dance Company, choreographed by Ohad Naharin
Decadance: Batsheva Dance Company, choreographed by Ohad Naharin
Power to Transform, The Australian Ballet's 2016 Season and World Ballet Day 2015
The Sleeping Beauty: The Australian Ballet, choreographed by David McAllister
20:21: The Australian Ballet, featuring choreography by George Balanchine, Tim Harbour, and Twyla Tharp
Reckless Sleepers and Nat Cursio's A String Section, and Sarah Aiken's SET, Malthouse and Dancehouse
Cinderella: The Australian Ballet, choreographed by Alexei Ratmansky, encore Melbourne season
Sydney Dance Company: Frame of Mind, choreography by William Forsythe and Rafael Bonachela
10,000 small deaths, On View: Quintet, Solos for Other People, and Long Grass, as part of Dance Massive 2015
Lucy Guerin: Motion Picture, as part of Dance Massive 2015
Merge and Do You Speak Chinese?, as part of Dance Massive 2015
Giselle: The Australian Ballet, production by Maina Gielgud
Nothing to Lose, Catalogue, and Tiny Slopes, as part of Dance Massive 2015
Meeting and Overworld, as part of Dance Massive 2015
Chunky Move: Depth of Field, as part of Dance Massive 2015
Dance Highlights from 2014, featuring The Australian Ballet, Nat Cursio, and Ros Warby
Ros Warby: Double Bill, Dancehouse
Nat Cursio and Shannon Bott: Recovery, The Substation
The Sacred and Profane — Rituals of Now, Dance Territories, Program One, as part of Melbourne Festival
The Nutcracker: The Australian Ballet, choreographed by Peter Wright
The Summit is Blue, as part of Melbourne Fringe Festival 2014
La Bayadère: The Australian Ballet, choreographed by Stanton Welch
Keir Choreographic Award Semi-Finals, presented by Dancehouse, The Keir Foundation, and Carriageworks
Imperial Suite: The Australian Ballet, featuring choreography by George Balanchine and Serge Lifar
Bodytorque.DNA: The Australian Ballet, choreography by Richard Cilli, Joshua Consandine, Timothy Harbour, Richard House, and Alice Topp
Chroma: The Australian Ballet, featuring choreography by Wayne McGregor, Jiří Kylián, and Stephen Baynes
Russell Dumas: Love is Blind, Dancehouse
Nat Cursio: The Middle Room, as part of the Festival of Live Art 2014
Manon: The Australian Ballet, choreographed by Sir Kenneth MacMillan
La Sylphide and Paquita: The Australian Ballet, featuring choreography by Erik Bruhn after August Bournonville, and Marius Petipa
Swan Lake: The Australian Ballet, choreographed by Graeme Murphy
Vanguard: The Australian Ballet, featuring choreography by George Balanchine, Jiří Kylián, and Wayne McGregor
Atlanta Eke: Monster Body, as part of Dance Massive 2013
[Gu:t] 굿, a work-in-progress presented as part of Dance Massive 2013
On Reflection: Dual, 247 Days, dance for the time being — Southern Exposure, as part of Dance Massive 2013
Ashley Dyer: Life Support, as part of Dance Massive 2013
The Australian Ballet 50th Gala, featuring American Ballet Theatre, Stuttgart Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, National Ballet of China, The Tokyo Ballet
Pierrot lunaire, presented by Melbourne Recital Centre in association with Melbourne Festival
Swan Lake: The Australian Ballet, choreographed by Stephen Baynes
Move to Move: Nederlands Dans Theater, on film