Zurich, Opera House
by Kevin Ng
Easter seems to be an unusual time to see the ballet "Cinderella" which is normally danced during the Christmas season. Nevertheless, "Cinderella" is this week in the repertory of two European companies - the Paris Opera Ballet which is dancing Nureyev's sumptuous 1986 production, and the Zurich Ballet which premiered on 16 April a new production choreographed by its artistic director Heinz Spoerli.
On 18 April, I attended at the Zurich Opera House the second performance of this new ballet which was created by Spoerli on the celebrated partnership of Agnes Oaks and Thomas Edur, guest stars of the English National Ballet, who have been guesting with the Zurich company in the past three months. In Zurich, Oaks and Edur have danced Balanchine's "Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux", and Edur has also danced Spoerli's "Romeo and Juliet" with Lara Radda.
Spoerli has trimmed his "Cinderella" into two acts, making cuts in the ballroom scene which neatly ends the first act. The choreography is classically based. When the curtain first rises, Cinderella is seen mourning over the dead body of her mother. Dancing is logically incorporated into the drama, as there is a barre in the drawing room for Cinderella and her step-sisters to practise. Curiously the father does not appear in this production. The pianist early on shows Cinderella a vision of her ideal prince in the mirror, and later becomes the fairy godmother leading her to the ball. The stepmother and both stepsisters are played in drag. The stepmother, jealous of seeing Cinderella capturing the attention of the dancing master as she excels at the barre more than her stepsisteres, frequently stops Cinderella from dancing.
After her stepmother and stepsisters have departed for the ball, Cinderella again sees the vision of her prince when she starts cleaning the mirror. The fairies of the four seasons do not dance a solo here, but each of them dances together with Cinderella in her respective variation, as if teaching her to perfect the steps, an impression reinforced by the fact that Cinderella mostly dances identical steps in tandem with each fairy. The scene ends with Cinderella putting on a tutu in preparation for the ball, accompanied by an entourage of cavaliers representing each of the twelve hours.
The ballroom scene is dominated by a high staircase from which the Prince and Cinderella are to make their entrances. The dance of the three oranges is unusual, since it is danced by three male dancers dressed as oranges, instead of by the two competing stepsisters in the Ashton production. As in other productions, there is a solo for the Prince and Cinderella, and a transcendent pas de deux. There are a lot of lifts in Spoerli's choreography for this pas de deux which however seems a little less than inspired. I wish for instance that at the crest of each lift, Cinderella could still dance with her arms and upper body as in Ashton's choreography, instead of remaining motionless. At the stroke of midnight, the 'hours' cavaliers in black costumes appear menacingly on stilts, towering over everyone, before we see Cinderella transformed back into her grey tunic in the previous scene.
Act 2 opens with a witty tableau when the Prince is seen on top of a heap of pink pointe shoes. The Prince's journey to the four corners of the world is represented by three national dances as in Nureyev's Paris production but which are omitted in Ashton's Royal Ballet production. Here Spoerli has cleverly devised each national dance as an homage to three of the greatest ballet companies in the world - the Bolshoi, Paris Opera Ballet, and of course the Royal Ballet. Instead of character shoes, the female dancers are on pointe.
The first dance is an homage to the Bolshoi Ballet's "Don Quixote" with three couples. The second, a homage to the Paris Opera Ballet, is a parody of the Kingdom of the Shades act in "La Bayadere" with six corps girls and a main couple. Each corps girl does endless arabesques penchees with arms in cambre as in the opening entrance from the Shades scene. The third dance is a tribute to the Royal Ballet's signature ballet "The Sleeping Beauty" forever associated with Fonteyn. There are promenades and equilibres in the choreography for the couple - Larra Radda and Stanlislav Jermakov both superb - echoing the Rose Adagio. In between each national dance, the Prince and his male entourage do a lot of high jumps in diagonals.
The final scene is back at the drawing room of Cinderella's home, and as expected the two stepsisters and stepmother try in vain to fit into the shoe brought by the Prince. Then Cinderella unexpectedly drops her shoe as she approaches the Prince. There follows a pas de trois for Cinderella, the Prince and the fairy godmother. The final pas de deux taking up the whole of the apotheosis, is blissfully serene. As the curtain falls, Cinderella and her Prince promenade slowly to the back of the stage.
Johan Engels has come up with lovely designs for the costumes and impressive sets. I particularly liked the ball gowns worn by the corps girls in the ballroom scene which are each different in colour, and Cinderella's dazzling white tutu in the final pas de deux with a red hem, perfectly matching the red roses on the backdrops as well as the red trimmings on the Prince's silver costume.
The two leading roles were grandly danced by Agnes Oaks and Thomas Edur, both in fine technical form. Oaks was slightly girlish in the beginning of Act 1, but was radiant from the ballroom scene onwards having found her beloved prince. She was very moving in the several pas de deux, melting our hearts. Edur is a prince in his whole being. I still remember his distinguished performance last year in Michael Corder's "Cinderella" for the English National Ballet partnering Lisa Pavane. On this occasion in Zurich, Edur danced as nobly as ever, with a romantic intensity. His stylish and impeccable dancing was always a delight, as was his attentive partnering of Oaks. It is indeed a unique partnership.
In the supporting roles, Karine Seneca impressed as the pianist/fairy godmother. The drag roles of the stepmother and the two stepsisters were danced with relish respectively by Jozef Varga, Nicolas Blanc and Kunsun Chan.
Incidentally, the Zurich Ballet will perform "Mozartina", another
work of Heinz Spoerli, when it appears at the Sadler's Wells Theatre in London