It was clever programming to bookend the Mariinsky’s three-week London Summer Season with two Prokofiev full-length ballets – starting with its classic, but dated, 1940 Romeo and Juliet, and ending with the contemporary chic of Alexei Ratmansky’s Cinderella. It demonstrates a company proud of its heritage, but that also looks forward. Cinderella was Bolshoi-trained choreographer Ratmansky’s first full-length ballet, commissioned for the Mariinsky in 2002. It wasn’t seen in this country until the 2012 Edinburgh International Festival, and this performance was its London première. Charles Perrault’s story is shifted to 1930s elegance to create an urban fairy tale. Its slinky choreography won’t be everyone’s samovar of tea – this is no ‘tiara and tutus’ formal ballet – but offers a refreshing alternative.

Diana Vishneva (Cinderella) © Mark Olich
Diana Vishneva (Cinderella)
© Mark Olich

Ilya Utkin and Yevgeny Monakhov’s stark, steel-framed set creates an austere atmosphere. This is established right from the start; there is no velvet curtain, but a dropcloth depicting a monochrome, Tudor-beamed metropolis. Metal staircases dominate the outer acts, while an empty clock transforms into a giant chandelier for the ball.

Ratmansky’s choreography combines classical ballet, traditional mime and sinuous contemporary, at times life-like movements. His ensemble dances are voluntarily grotesque, with the corps de ballet pawing and prancing at the ball in a parody of a 1930s Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers routine, their gyrations resulting in a galumphing conga. This is just the sort of cynical, twisted society in which Cinderella’s stepmother and stepsisters would fit snugly.

London audiences will be used to Frederick Ashton’s Royal Ballet version with pantomime dame ugly sisters. Ratmansky’s stepsisters are ugly only in their actions – gawky, spiky movements, playing on the dissonance in Prokofiev’s score. If anything, Anastasia Petushkova’s vampish, orange-wigged stepmother overshadows her daughters with sharp, angular movements and incredibly high extensions. There is humour aplenty; knowingly camp hairdressers pamper and preen the trio in the opening scene and the dancing lesson is a tango catastrophe.

Cinders’ vodka-drenched father – his way of coping with his new wife? – is given limited opportunity to make an impression, but the Fairy godmother as a vagrant bag lady is a neat idea. Prokofiev’s musical reference to his opera The Love for Three Oranges during the ball scene is ignored, until eventually finding an outlet in the godmother spilling her bag of oranges as the clock ferociously strikes midnight.

Not everything is an unqualified success. Ratmansky employs garishly face-painted men for the four seasons, all double heel clicks, leaps and lunges. Whilst novel in Act I, they overstay their welcome. Yes, they represent the passing of time, but this is signalled quite well enough by the chandelier which rotates to become the clock. (It was an idea Ratmansky dropped when he revisited the work for the Australian Ballet last year, replacing the seasons with ‘dancing planets’.)

Konstantin Zverev was the fresh-faced prince; a white-suited bachelor, looking far more confident here than he did in Monday’s Marguerite and Armand, and his manège of jetés was both assured and stylish. As the prince desperately searches for Cinderella, her one shoe in his backpack, temptation is thrown his way, first in the form of eight girls, then in the ‘Oriental Dance’ eight men, weaving their way into his path beneath both cool moonlight and blazing noon. There are nods towards Jerome Robbins’ choreography here, and Zverev’s clambering up the metal staircase is reminiscent of Tony in West Side Story.

Diana Vishneva and Vladimir Shklyarov © Valentin Baranovsky
Diana Vishneva and Vladimir Shklyarov
© Valentin Baranovsky

But this is Diana Vishneva’s show. Ratmansky’s choreography allows her to narrate with both her arms and expressive eyes. There is an easy fluidity to her movement which enchants – a mere brush of her cheek reveals a tender vulnerability. Her Act II solo, where she seeks the approval of the courtiers, sees her character gradually grow in confidence, bewitching her Prince. She and Zverev delight in a sequence of feathery lifts in the ballroom pas de deux, which then transfers to the palace gardens. The giddy rapture of those first moments of love are interrupted by the flickering of the chandelier to remind her of the midnight curfew. The stage is cleared for their tender Act III pas de deux, with only the stars left for company.

Prokofiev’s bittersweet music is laced with far more irony than Romeo and Juliet. Unlike Ashton, who inflicted cuts, Ratmansky leaves the lengthy score pretty much intact. Only the Summer Fairy’s shimmering, hazy Andantino is missing, replaced by the more vigorous “Grasshoppers and Dragonflies” variation. The Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra, under Alexei Repnikov (distinctly underwhelming in Swan Lake and The Firebird) brought out the necessary wit and vitality with sparkling playing. It was great to hear authentic Russian brass in full cry, while the woodwinds cackled and mocked.

Ratmansky’s take on Cinderella is both refreshing and sophisticated, yet the audience response felt muted at the end of the performance. Perhaps some prefer their fairy tales sugar-coated.