The Australian Ballet
Choreography Alexei Ratmansky
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.” 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, making this fairytale complete.
Time: the passing of time is seen in the orbit of the planets that spin clockwise and anticlockwise. There flies Mars, Neptune, and Venus! The apparent suspension of time has 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 Sleep (1937). The marking of time in 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 Prokofiev’s 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 Giorgio 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 context 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 a 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.
Madeleine Eastoe and Kevin Jackson (Friday 20), and Lana Jones and Daniel Gaudiello (Tuesday 24) gave such an 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?)
1. Principal artist Leanne Stojmenov dances Cinderella in Alexei Ratmansky’s “Cinderella.” All photos by Jeff Busby
2. Stepsisters: Ingrid Gow (green), Amy Harris (step-mother, middle) and Halaina Hills (pink) impress at the ball
3. Alexei Ratmansky in rehearsal at the Australian Ballet poses on the “Mae West’s Lips” couch
[ii] Konstantin Sergeyev discussing the musical and scenic characterisation to Prokofiev, “Music Note,” Professor Mark Carroll, the Australian Ballet’s Cinderella programme, 2013
[iii] “Exploring music with Bill McGlaughlin: Prokofiev.” http://exploringmusic.wfmt.com/listen-to-the-show/54/prokofiev
[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.’ Andre 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 (New York: Wittenborn, Schultz, Inc., 1948), 177
[v] J. A. Boiffard, P. Eluard & R. Vitrac, “Préface,” La Révolution surréaliste (The Surrealist Revolution), trans. Dawn Ades, ser. 1, no. 1 (December 1924), 1