The first ballet company appearing in this year’s Hong Kong Arts Festival was the Dutch National Ballet, with Christopher Wheeldon’s production of Cinderella, which was created on the company in 2012. This was a good contrast to the impressive Hans van Manen programme the company presented in its last appearance in this Festival, in 2010.

This is certainly a lavish production with sumptuous sets and costumes designed by Julian Crouch. In addition, the well-known puppeteer Basil Twist designed the tree which first appears behind Cinderella’s mother's grave in the first scene of Act I, while the overture is playing. The tree grows and changes shape constantly, and is a main focus on the stage throughout the ballet. 

© Angela Sterling
© Angela Sterling
Twist is also responsible for the spectacular chariot driving Cinderella to the ball at the end of this first act, which is a brilliant coup de théâtre. The tree is quickly and unexpectedly transformed into a chariot with dancers putting on horses’ heads and rolling the large carriage wheels along. This production is imaginative in theatrical images: the dazzling set of chandeliers in the ballroom, and the whole row of chairs being lifted up into the ceiling... At the end of the ballet, the chandeliers unexpectedly descend onto the big tree in the garden, as if merging the interior and exterior world.

This production is also full of realistic naturalism. One of the stepsisters, Clementine, is bespectacled. The stepmother, Hortensia, gets drunk in the ballroom scene and dances a solo, reminiscent of Lescaut’s drunken solo in MacMillan’s Manon. In the final act, Hortensia is even seen vomiting. Meanwhile, the other stepsister, Edwina, has bad breath.

The new scenario is by Craig Lucas and seems more complicated than necessary. The prince is named Guillaume, and there is a new character in his best friend Benjamin who is the valet’s son. When both of them go out to send invitations in person to the guests, they start to switch identities and pretend to be each other. Guillaume pretends to be a beggar when he first sees Cinderella in her kitchen, which however strains credibility.

There is a quartet of men representing the Fates who constantly protect and escort Cinderella. The seasonal fairies become spirits (both male and female) who teach her the steps for the ball. At the end of the ballroom scene, Cinderella’s mask is ripped off by Hortensia before she flees and leaves behind a golden shoe. In the final act, it’s also Hortensia who flings the shoe into the fire, before Cinderella is lifted by the four fate figures and presents to Guillaume her remaining shoe. After their wedding celebrations, Benjamin also takes the hand of the bespectacled stepsister Clementine, with whom he has fallen in love.

Wheeldon’s choreography is effective, throughout. The heart of the ballet is the pas de deux in the ballroom act. Though Wheeldon’s choreography is not as transcendent as Ashton’s version for the Royal Ballet, it is suitably ecstatic and soaring. In addition to the Prince’s variation, Benjamin also has his own. In the final wedding scene, the short duet for Cinderella and Guillaume is both pretty lyrical and heart-warming.

© Angela Sterling
© Angela Sterling
Dancing the title role was Anna Tsygankova, who is no stranger to Hong Kong having already guested last summer with the Hong Kong Ballet. Her dancing was radiant with a warm glow, she almost melting in the pas de deux with her prince, Jozef Varga who, though a strong partner, lacked passion. Remi Wortmeyer impressed as Benjamin. Among the character roles, it was also a treat to see the troupe’s former star Larissa Lezhnina as the stepmother and Alexander Zhembrovskyy was dignified as Cinderella’s father.

Overall, Wheeldon's production will be remembered more for its theatricality, than it will for the choreography.