Mathew Bourne's Cinderella

April 7, 1999

Tony-award winning Adam Cooper romances World-War II era Cinderella, Sahah Wildor in Matthew Bourne’s choreography of this pop fantasty.
Photo courtesy Ahmanson Theatre.

Advenures in Motion Pictures:

Matthew Bourne’s Cinderella
Ahmanson Theatre

April 7-May 23, 1999

Reviewed by Clive Barnes

Los Angeles, CA-Matthew Bourne’s Adventures in Motion Pictures, despite the strange but aptly clever name, is possibly Britain’s best- established contemporary dance company. Even more than Christopher Bruce’s more prestigious, and far older, Rambert Dance Company, Adventures is the troupe that has attracted mass attention both in its native United Kingdom and in the United States. This London-based company, fast becoming British dance’s most visible export, pleasantly surprised the dance establishment last year with Bourne’s imaginative and conceptually brilliant Swan Lake-complete with male swans and a gay prince-produced on Broadway, in London’s West End, and on world tour by Mr. Showbiz himself, Cameron Mackintosh. So what does Bourne do for an encore?

Although Adventures has been in existence since 1987, it was only in 1995 with Swan Lake that the company and its thirty-nine-year-old cofounder, artistic director, and choreographer hit the jackpot fleshpots of London, New York City, and Los Angeles. Bourne’s early works tended toward witty, campy pastiches; eventually he started a series of showbiz-style reworkings of established ballet classics-a version of The Nutcracker set in an orphanage, and Highland Fling, a new look at Bournonville’s La Sylphide transposed to a contemporary Glasgow housing project.

The series culminated with Swan Lake and a new staging of Cinderella, with which Bourne and his company returned to the United States for a season at the Ahmanson. Cinderella, first seen in London in 1997, as I understand it, has been revised and much titivated for Los Angeles. Like the fabulously successful Swan Lake, it is odd, radical, and high concept-but this one proves a disappointment.

In many ways, this Cinderella-which actually uses more of the Prokofiev score than most British productions-is less radical than Swan Lake. Neither the Prince nor the waiflike heroine has been called upon to modify either their gender or sexual preference. However, Bourne has taken the tale out of traditional fairyland and plunked it down into the London Blitz of World War II. The Prince has been transmogrified into a wounded Royal Air Force pilot, the Fairy Godmother is now Cinderella’s male guardian angel, the wicked step- mother becomes a prototypical Joan Crawford-style harridan, and the ballroom setting has been moved to the bombed Café de Paris, which in the spring of 1941 was the site of one of the most famous London air-raid disasters.

This is not by any means the first time the libretto for Prokofiev’s score has been updated. Rudolf Nureyev, in his notorious production for Paris Opéra Ballet in 1986, placed the story in Hollywood during the 1930s. Nureyev’s version, seen in New York City at the Metropolitan Opera House in 1987, was remarkably successful in carrying through its story line, making everything dramatically logical.

It is the very lack of logic that is Bourne’s most signal, and somewhat unexpected, failure, for sheer theatrical coherence was surely the hallmark of his Swan Lake. In Cinderella, there seem to be as many loose ends as at a knitting party suddenly deprived of its needles. For example, in his first scene the Air Force officer, head bound in a bandage, is wandering in a daze, knocking on a door for help. Why? Presumably his plane has crashed nearby (in fact, I cannot recall a single fighter plane crashing in metropolitan London during the Blitz), but surely he would have soon found official assistance. It would have made more sense had he been a Luftwaffe pilot. That might have been a twist, and one politically correct enough for the NATO alliance!

In the next scene-in the at first bombed-out and then miraculously restored Café de Paris-the pilot is as good as new and dancing like a palais de danse fiend. This must be a dream or vision, but what are we to make of his later bedroom pas de deux with Cinderella, apart from noting its debt to Roland Petit’s Carmen and all those subsequent imitations by Kenneth MacMillan? These visions over, we are back to the wounded, real-life pilot, as we see him running through the murky London streets past sinister deserted subway platforms during the wartime blackout. He searches desperately for his lost beloved until all is brought to a happy shoe-fitting (yes, fetish lovers, there is a slipper), attended by the good offices of the guardian angel. There are many dramatic gaps throughout that require great suspension of disbelief.

When I saw the production on March 30, it was admittedly an early preview (only its second Los Angeles performance), and the claim was that it had already been markedly improved after the mixed notices following its London premiere. Perhaps. Undoubtedly more work will have been done on it during the Los Angeles visit (which was scheduled through May 23). But the whole concept, unlike Nureyev’s smart if misguided Hollywoodization, appears shaky, and Bourne’s choreographic ability-as many observed even with the theatrically fascinating Swan Lake-is scarcely his strong point. He lacks invention, relying time and again on a wearisome, small repertory of ballet steps: ceaseless grands jetés, myriad attitude turns (which after a time even lack something in attitude), and partnering lifts where the woman is virtually shoved into the air and twirled around. Once or twice is fine, three or four times is acceptable. But the kind of mass hoisting featured here must be as tiresome for the audience as it is tiring for the dancers.

In many small touches, Bourne reveals himself as a natural theater director; it is noticeable that he always describes his artistic role as “directed and choreographed,” in that order. Perhaps the time has come for him to stick to directing and collaborate with another choreographer. When the best dancing of the evening seems to come in the curtain calls, something must surely be wrong.

Not that this Cinderella is a wasted evening-merely a very flawed one. The scenery and costumes by Lez Brotherston are extremely imaginative, and the performances, particularly in the cast I saw-a gallant and mustachioed Adam Cooper as the Pilot, the charming Sarah Wildor, guesting from the Royal Ballet, as Cinderella, and Will Kemp as the Angel-were elegant, polished, and yet forceful. Whether this Cinderella could repeat the success of Swan Lake on Broadway seems at present dubious. The story would need retelling and the choreography would need rethinking. The concept for a ballet, however adventurous, can be quite a different thing from the ballet as it actually appears onstage.

For another contemporary version of Cinderella, see a review of Boulder Ballet.