If you’ve seen the recent film version of Sondheim’s Into the Woods then you’re familiar with a different, flinty eyed view of the Princess Dream that is at the heart of Cinderella. That Cinderella, deftly rendered by Anna Kendrick, is decidedly ambivalent about life at court and only becomes more so as she discovers that, ultimately, her prince was raised to be charming rather than sincere. Who could blame her for ultimately turning him down? Well, that was also the problem with Vladimir Shklyarov’s Prince. He took to the stage in the ballroom scene with blithe arrogance and smug self-satisfaction, all played as arch comedy. It was amusing and he pulled it off well... but the manner was completely at odds with that of the prince who later set eyes on Cinderella and fell rapturously in love. The prince that fell in love was sincere and ardent but we weren’t witnesses of that transformation... the plot lacked dramatic cohesion – an irregularity otherwise not seen in Ratmansky's later work. I couldn’t help but wonder how Nadezhda Batoeva’s Cinderella would have reacted if she’d met the smarmy prince who preened across the stage to open the second act. She might, like Kendrick’s Cinderella, have run for the woods.

The first act was the best of the three dramatically speaking. Throughout, you could sense this was not your typical recycled, re-staged for the hundredth time story ballet: Ratmansky is a master story-teller who has helped to revive interest in story ballets. Yet, among other problems, is the Fairy Godmother, portrayed here as a cloying clownish bag lady and whose accompanying Four Seasons didn’t have any logical reason for existing other than to use up some music. They danced well but what were they, really? The stepsisters, Margarita Frolova and Yekaterina Ivannikova, kept performing the same joke, over and over, which wore out by the second act. The same might be said of the role of Stepmother, but Yekaterina Kondaurova is a refined performer, and she was able to make more of the role than it really contains. Soslan Kulaev, as Cinderella’s father, was maudlin in the extreme and could have been cut without any sense of loss. Holding this whole first act together was Batoeva’s Cinderella and her desperate yearning to free herself from drudgery. Hers is by any measure the most fully realized character in the ballet and Batoeva was fully present in all of her scenes, giving the part a rich texture that was not there in the other characters. She is simply a beautiful dancer and made the role her own. In each of her dances she made the most of the opportunies offered to her by Ratmansky’s choreography,and was, at various times, bored, frustrated, angry, resentful, hopeful, yearning, shy, sulky, winsome, fragile, heartbroken, bereft, and finally, lyrically beautiful.

The second act’s ballroom scene was unsatisfying at best and a string of annoying clichés at its worst. The corps de ballet dances were frankly uninspired, Stepmother and the two stepsisters cartoonishly gauche – the inappropriate dresses boorish behavior and more of the repeating variations. The overall design was equally dissatisfying. On the upside, there was Batoeva. Most especially in the first pas de deux of the second act, she showed her full, and mature range as the great ballerina that she clearly is. One of the younger generation of Mariinsky ballerinas Batova here showed promises that she can rise to the top of the company’s ranks.

The third act was the least enjoyable and by this time I’d had just about enough of the stepsister’s shenanigans, the not-so-comically drunken father, the Four Seasons of uncertain origin and never-ending madcap crossovers executed by the busy corps de ballet.The his and hers bordellos that served to distract the Prince from his mission of tracking down his Princess manqué were gratuitous but it’s no stretch to say that no one would blame the prince if he decided that marriage wasn’t for him. The women of Mariinsky were fairly searing the stage in their attempts to distract him. The finale was by contrast unexpectedly touching in its sweetness. It brought us back to the ballet's essential truth; its fairy tale quality. However the story gets told, we want a satisfying resolution and that we do get. 

This is not Ratmansky’s best work. We probably shouldn’t over-analyze it because it isn’t Prokofiev’s best work either. It is lush, beautiful music but there is little in this work that is indelibly burned into the memory as his great masterpiece, Romeo and Juliet, a ballet which Ratmansky has yet to choreograph, is. The Mariisnky Orchestra was excellent, the performance deep, rich, powerful and beautiful music. Cinderella was Ratmansky’s first full length work, created for the Mariinsky in 2002, and the choreographer has come a long way since then. We can here see the roots of his breaking out of the strictures of fusty old story ballets. He choreographed another version for the Australian Ballet in 2013, clearly indicating that he had more to say on the subject, but we can still appreciate this work for what it is: an early piece that shows the artist emerging. By the time Ratmansky turns in his Romeo and Juliet, it will be a masterpiece.