First may I emphasize that there was a tree. A very, very beautiful tree. Dazzling indeed: just the sort one would expect to find in a fairy tale world. Not that it was so ‘fairy’ as all that. Christopher Wheeldon has axed the traditional godmother, true, and fobbed off the pumpkin and mice. Nonetheless, he has left the spiritual realm intact, just of a different kind: four (male) Fates, benign and whirling presences preside at key moments of the action, not just helping with the all-important make-over, but, on occasion, with the mundane housework too. This Cinderella, a transatlantic co-production for San Francisco Ballet and Dutch National Ballet, performed here tonight at the Kennedy by the former, has a more open, less staid texture than older versions, with the happy result that we did feel as if we were seeing something new (no mean achievement for the story of folklore’s favourite domestic servant). Wheeldon and his creative team desired to ‘burrow out’ new possibilities and in this they succeed magnificently.

Maria Kochetkova as Cinderella © Erik Tomasson
Maria Kochetkova as Cinderella
© Erik Tomasson

Maria Kochetkova’s Cinderella is entrancingly gamine, with compact movements and a seamlessly fluent sense of movement. The Prince (Joseph Walsh in tonight’s performance) avoids one of ballet’s most boring and predictable paradigms, what Wheeldon identifies astutely as ‘the handsome mug’ problem, nice to look at, but, in reality, a bit of a stooge. (What does she see in him except a useful support for pirouettes?) Walsh, long-limbed, charismatic and energetic, was aided and abetted by his ebullient boyhood friend, Benjamin (the alluringly comic Taras Domitro).

The aching predictability of an exclusive boy-meets-girl-who-loses-her-shoe romance is here treated somewhat less sacredly – certainly less exclusively, and the whole comes across as more humane, more real, if you will. Only one sister – danced with malicious gusto by Sasha DeSola, is a genuine virago; the other Ellen Rose Hummel, an engagingly simpering stage presence, with spectacles) is just goofy and rather heedless; her romancing with Benjamin gives texture and layering to the narrative, and functions as a nice subplot. Stepmother Hortensia, the angular Sarah Van Patten – is the true termagant, but as comedy invariably trumps cruelty here, her progressive inebriation at the ball - a pas de verres (2 verres!) while tottering on pointe, with a husband alongside vainly bleating the proprieties (Cinder’s pa is still alive in this version – another human touch), renders her a figure of ridicule rather than malice. Sealed by her very obvious morning-after-the night before indisposition.

There is a lot going on in Wheeldon’s narrative ballets – flow is the word that comes to mind. He doesn’t let you rest much. But the activism works because it is undergirded by a powerful sense of rhythm. I thought of this when during the  pas de deux of the leads in Act III, the corps were rhythmically swaying in the background – a disarmingly simple but effective choice, carrying on the sense of undulating movement evident in the whole work.

Which brings us back to the tree again. The art work of puppeteer Basil Twist, it had a life of its own in its dancing movements and changing seasons. The production, thanks to Julian Crouch (set and costume) and Natasha Katz (lighting)– was quite wonderfully deft: there was an artistic fittingness to the whole which had one feeling that such was just the right lighting for such a moment (loved the chandeliers and stars), and just the best costume (even glitter and spiky hair gel on the spirits worked). Magic things happen – as they should – chairs levitate, tables rotate, and there were magnificent moments of theater at the end of Acts I and II: a tour de force of colour, movement, and inventiveness – we don’t need to know the mechanism, but the magicking up of that carriage, her gown billowing up high above the stage, was pure spectacle. But the gorgeously supernatural was attended by acute attention to the very humdrum details – Wheeldon’s droll sense of Englishry comes out rather - the four Fates with their umbrellas by the graveside (what else is a gentleman to do?), the sisters’ mirror covered in pink lipstick kisses (what more ample evidence of self-love?), the portraits on the wall of proposed brides for the prince, all singularly repulsive, who come, vampish and determined to the ball, and the rebarbative ‘queue’ of hopefuls for the shoe-fitting – all these and more were slyly observed and downright funny.

In short, we found we could do splendidly well without the pumpkin, a wily and egregious vegetable anyway, and even the fairy with her twee spells and glittering wand. Wheeldon’s Cinderella was real, humane, and also something of a charm.