Prokofiev’s Cinderella is not the easiest ballet to love. In his Romeo and Juliet a timeless story and lush, action-driven score ensure that even mediocre productions are heartbreaking. In Cinderella on the other hand, the good characters have a fairytale flatness, the evil step-family are grotesque, and the score is frequently chromatic, and jarring, as well as being filled with long divertissements that do not advance the action.

© N Razina
© N Razina

How thrilling, then, to find that the fantastic Mariinsky Cinderella at the Edinburgh International Festival makes sense of it all. Chorographed by Ratmansky for the company in 2002, this production made his name in Russia, but has never been seen in the UK (it is also the only appearance by either the Mariinsky or the Bolshoi on British soil this summer, so was a hot ticket indeed).

The original concept for Cinderella, often still imitated by modern productions, used an 18th century French/Russian court setting, in which the towering wigs, beauty spots and farcical fawning of her step-family can overpower Cinderella’s sweetness, rendering the whole effect more pantomime than Perrault. Evgeny Monakhov and Ilya Utkin’s superlative set design for the Mariinsky, however, opts for a Modernist, 1920s aesthetic: a Soviet version of Cabaret, in which Cinderella’s home is a dirty stage, her hapless father comes in dead drunk on vodka, and the beggar-woman/fairy godmother shuffles along with carrier bags, bent double in an oversized felt coat and shapeless wool skirts. When the Metropolis-style drop of serried apartment blocks lifts we see Cinderella, played by Diana Vishneva with a wide-eyed, tremulous smile, in tattered ballet practice clothes, while her stepmother (Ekaterina Kondaurova in an orange Liza Minelli wig), alternates between menacing elegance and frenzied rage. Kondaurova is a stunning dancer, but perhaps a little too dominant: the dopey stepsisters can’t find space to shine and even in the usually hilarious dancing master scene Iosfidi’s interaction with the bored professional tango couple steals the show.

The four seasons in this production are puckish men in bright facepaint and outlandish wigs: Vasily Tkachenko as Spring deserves a mention for his soaring cabrioles, while skinny Ivan Sitnikov as Winter was delightfully odd, part David Bowie, part Mystique (the blue one) from X-Men. Their variations were not spectacular, but they closed the act in a superb pas de cinq with the newly-dressed Cinderella, as Prokofiev’s score gave us a foretaste of the lyrical waltzes to come at the ball, the giant empty clock turned face up to become a steampunk chandelier, and the red curtain which had been closing off Cinderella’s stage world lifted to reveal a painted backdrop of a cavernous, Brutalist hall.

The ball seems to be some kind of Party function – all the women are wearing shades of red – and the guests’ dedicated, almost demonstrative revelry seems like a façade which might crack any time – and sometimes does: the women intermittently stop mid-dance and collapse like marionettes whose strings have been cut. Igor Kolb’s broad-shouldered prince, wearing an unfortunately cheap-looking white suit, looks lost and uncomfortable in this crowd until he sees Cinderella. Their burgeoning romance is apparent in their dancing; the choreography for both characters before they met had an unfinished, searching quality; once they are dancing together, we get a sense of connection, completeness and flow. Whenever they are forced to interact with the massed socialite guests Cinderella and the Prince look unhappy, but when they escape the hall to dance in a cool, misty garden, their pas-de-deux shows the touching assurance of a perfectly-matched couple. Vishneva in particular is a gorgeous dancer to watch: light, fluid, deeply lyrical, and able to pull off Ratmansky’s distinctive combination of expansive classical steps and twisted contemporary positions with élan. The last act, with the prince searching the world for his lost girl in white, was a little too long – the fault of the score, not the production – but it was all worth it for the final, glorious pas-de-deux back in the garden.

Ratmansky’s style takes some getting used to – steps, especially hand movements, are often left unfinished, so it can look like the dancers are just being sloppy. There were some imperfections: certain costumes are 1990s nightmares (the Prince wears a bum bag to carry the glass slipper around the world); some dancers were out of time; Igor Kolb is not the handsomest or most charismatic prince imaginable. Yet somehow those were completely outweighed for me by the charm and vigour of the dancers, as well as the fantastically evocative set design - the Stalinist setting and brittle/melancholy Russian mood made dramatic sense out of the fairytale nastiness that in other productions I have only found offputting. It took his compatriots to show me how, but I am finally learning to love Prokofiev’s Cinderella.