Matthew Bourne’s Cinderella, at the Kennedy Center’s Opera House through Sunday, is brilliantly imagined and executed. Forget your Disney conceptions, or even the Rostislav Zakharov or Frederick Ashton ballet precursors to the same score by Sergei Prokofiev. Bourne and his New Adventures Company, in this revised version of his 1997 production, bring an idiosyncratic but deeply stirring reconsideration of the folk tale we know from the Brothers Grimm.
Bourne took his cue from the musical score, which Prokofiev wrote during World War II. That moved the choreographer to place the story in that context, specifically in London during the Nazi Blitz. Though he was charmed by Ashton’s more traditional fairy-tale-style choreography, Bourne is drawn to the darker and quirkier tones in Prokofiev’s anxious augmented arpeggios, the chronic chromatic crises, the frenetic and hysterical hedonism and terror, all rendered in a colorful recording by Brett Morris conducting an 82-piece orchestra. What’s more, the music is incorporated into a surround-sound environment that also includes airplanes, sirens, bombs, and street noises, enveloping the audience, which is further ushered into the era through 1940s newsreels.
Those black-and-white films offer aesthetic and character inspirations as well as historical ones. The clever period sets and costumes, by Lez Brotherston, play off a largely monochromatic scheme, and the story and characters draw from movies of the era: A Matter of Life and Death, the Bishop’s Wife, Brief Encounter, and Waterloo Bridge. The stepmother, here a flirty, vicious drunk, is an homage to Joan Crawford characters.
New Adventures is not a traditional ballet company but a dance-theater company. The distinction is key. The troupe’s dancing, a ballet-modern hybrid, is wonderful, but their wordless acting is just as important and the two are intertwined and inseparable.
Act One introduces Cinderella and her family, here not only with stepmother and stepsisters but with two stepbrothers and Cinderella’s wheelchair-bound father, a veteran of the First World War. There are also boyfriends and girlfriends and riotous riffs on the Charleston.
Bourne’s Cinderella, danced with tenderness and vivacity Thursday night by Ashley Shaw, is no melancholy wallflower. Her stepsisters provoke her, dropping their ciggy ashes onto the floor right where she’s just swept, and her bitchy stepmom taunts her with an invitation to a ball to be held at the Café de Paris. They shove aside her poor old dad like a piece of furniture.
Yet Cinderella smolders rather than pouts. She’s funny, odd, and sexy—revolted by, but also not entirely unsympathetic to, her pervy stepbrother’s hots for her and the sparkly shoes she tries on. (That’s an amusing bit, since society’s fondness for the tale of Cinderella suggests our implacable collective shoe fetish through the generations.)
When a shell-shocked Royal Air Force pilot, Harry (a vulnerable but dashing Andrew Monaghan), stumbles into the house, Cinderella’s romance with him is initiated by a mysterious Angel (Liam Mower). Taking the place of the traditional Fairy Godmother, the luminous and enticing Angel is at once harbinger of death and transcendent spirit of life.
When the obnoxious family blocks Cinderella from Harry, she imagines him in the form of a rolling clothes dummy, which brings him back to half-life as a mechanical soldier—a fanciful, comical spin on ballet’s Nutcracker and similar creatures. Their pas de deux is playful, pitiful, and telling—an interesting precursor to, and symbol of, their later meetings. Her Angel incites Cinderella to venture, through surreal streets of barking gas-mask-donning dogs, toward a defiant night of pleasure and forgetting.
closes January 20, 2018
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There actually was a Café de Paris, and it was bombed on March 8, 1941, killing guests, cabaret artists, and employees. That’s the setting for Act Two, where the set magically rewinds from ruins to prior merriment. There, the fully decked-out Cinderella, in a glam dress to match her sparkling shoes, dances with a gussied-up Harry. Their friends and Cinderella’s stepfamily hop onto the floor too, with her vamping, desperate stepmom (a hilarious and scary Madelaine Brennan) clinging to Harry and any other man flesh she can get her claws into.
After comes a vibrant pas de deux of Harry and Cinderella in their underthings at his flat. Should We or Shouldn’t We melts sweetly into How Could We Not?
A particularly vicious round of Blitz bombing sweeps us into Act III, where a delirious Harry pathetically shambles around the city looking for Cinderella, holding one of her shoes. Meanwhile, she’s been admitted to a Red Cross unit, apparently shaken by shelling on her quick retreat from Harry’s as the Angel pointed to midnight. She has the other shoe.
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In the Underground, pickpocketing hookers take advantage of the disoriented Harry, and thugs badly rough him up. He too ends up in the Red Cross unit, where he’s plugged in for shock therapy. Meantime, Cinderella’s stepmonsters, waggling in single file with duck-like bobbings of the head, pay her a most unwelcome visit.
Can a happy ending be won in such circumstances?
Bourne’s grandparents kept their families together during the Blitz just streets away from each other in London. Growing up, he heard stories about “the excitement, the fear, and the friendships they made.” His production shimmers with that edgy sense of days seized, nights cherished, a defiant courage in a collapsing world. There, whatever the cost, love has no time to dally.
Matthew Bourne’s Cinderella, at the Opera House of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts through January 20. Director and choreographer: Matthew Bourne. Music: Sergie Prokofiev. Associate artistic director: Etta Murfitt. Projection design: Duncan McLean. Sound design: Paul Groothuis. Lighting design: Neil Austin. Set and Costume Design: Lez Brotherston. Reviewed by Alexander C. Kafka