No fairy godmother. No clock. No pumpkin. Christopher Wheeldon can be forgiven for eschewing these traditional fairy tale elements in his version of Cinderella for a moment of sheer magic at the end of Act I. Except that Wheeldon wasn’t actually responsible for the carriage scene – a coup de théâtre designed by Basil Twist. Cinders disappears into the trunk of a tree that overlooks her mother’s graveside, emerging in a soft peach ballgown. Nature provides all the elements of the carriage to whisk her off to the ball, horses seemingly galloping towards us, the gown billowing into a cupola.

Anna Tsygankova (Cinderella) © Angela Sterling
Anna Tsygankova (Cinderella)
© Angela Sterling

This Dutch National Ballet production, presented by Sadler's Wells and taking its UK bow, is scenically striking – but it’s very much Julian Crouch’s sets and costumes and the impressive stagecraft which provide some of the magic missing in Wheeldon’s choreography.

Librettist Craig Lucas adds to the plot. In a sentimental prologue, we see Cinderella’s back-story – her mother’s early death, her daughter grieving, her tears watering the ground, from which a tree magically sprouts. We get Prince Guillaume’s back-story too. As a child, he larks around with Benjamin, the valet’s son, a friendship which lasts into adulthood. In an idea straight from Rossini’s La Cenerentola, Guillaume swaps clothes with Benjamin when delivering invitations to the ball. Cinderella’s humanity is displayed when she tends to the ‘valet’ by the fireside, ignoring the fuss and flapping of the stepsisters as they fawn over ‘the prince’.

Among Wheeldon’s neater ideas is a game of musical chairs in Act III as the ladies line up to try on the golden pointe shoe. These chairs then float, creating an arch to frame the next scene. Clementine, the second stepsister (Nadia Yanowsky), exhibits a softer side and is rewarded by finding love herself in the form of Benjamin. Comic strip humour occasionally grates, however, such as the stepsister with halitosis and smelly feet. Exotic guests at the ball are caricatures. There is a witty routine for the tipsy stepmother, giving her husband the slip to pursue the champagne-proffering waiters, but this results in the mother-of-all hangovers with Larissa Lezhnina vomiting into her breakfast bowl. Considering how gloriously Wheeldon handles humour in The Royal Ballet’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (which premiered a year before his Cinderella), this seems a miscalculation.

Matthew Golding (Guillaume) and Anna Tsygankova (Cinderella) © Angela Sterling
Matthew Golding (Guillaume) and Anna Tsygankova (Cinderella)
© Angela Sterling

Matthew Rowe and the Royal Ballet Sinfonia revel in the tender lyricism of Prokofiev’s score (judiciuosly snipped in Act III), but they miss the ‘bite’ necessary for its more sarcastic, dissonant passages.

Anna Tsygankova’s Cinders is coy, her graceful port-de bras and fluidity quite captivating. However, Wheeldon doesn’t allow her to establish character in an opening act where she gets little to dance. Cinders’ life doesn’t seem especially harsh and she doesn’t get to display her sadness other than pining for her dead mother. Her father seems perfectly content to leave his daughter behind as they head off to the ball. Besides, four Fates, masked in gold facepaint, dash to Cinderella’s aid, completing her tasks in time for her home to dissolve into dry ice and a twinkling starfield ready for the transformation scene. Cinderella floats into the ball like gossamer, raised aloft by the Four Fates, her awkwardness in such an alien environment displayed in a solo where odd balances are struck. The ballroom, festooned with candelabra, is populated by guests, decked out in royal blue and turquoise, who spin coldly around the dance floor.

Act III finale © Angela Sterling
Act III finale
© Angela Sterling

Matthew Golding, athletic but lacking much facial expression beyond a plastic smile, doesn’t charm as the prince. However, his three pas de deux with Tsygankova have a lyrical tenderness. The first pas is low on spectacular lifts, the second takes place against a cloudy pink sky while the guests are watching fireworks outside. It’s almost as if these guests don’t notice or care, reflected at the end of the ballet when Cinders and Guillaume slip away from their own wedding celebrations unnoticed… just another couple. That final stage picture is pure Disney: chandeliers descend through the tree’s canopy – a neat juxtaposition of nature and the high society world Cinders is about to enter. Like Wheeldon’s production, it’s glossy and superficial... but often extremely pretty to watch.

***11