Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Matthew Bourne's Cinderella

Event: Matthew Bourne's Cinderella
Location: Sadler's Wells

Like most people, I discovered the contemporary choreographer Matthew Bourne through this film (I still get shivers watching that scene). So earlier this year, I went off to Cardiff to gain my first Matthew Bourne experience. I was not prepared for the ballet: shocked not at the content per se, but that I wasn't expecting Swan Lake to be reinterpreted in that particular way. Of course it was going to be unconventional, with a male protagonist instead of a female, but I didn't know it would be a homoerotic psychological thriller, which is worlds apart from the original Swan Lake narrative.

Instead of a pumpkin-turned-carriage,
Cinder to the ball in a motorcycle sidecar!

In any case, I loved his Swan Lake and decided to see his CInderella. I tried to not find out too much about the ballet so as to keep the surprise up, but I did read the synopsis - celebrating the 70th anniversary of the London Blitz, Bourne made 1940 the setting of his Cinderella. The skeleton framework of the Cinderella fairytale is still there - the evil stepmother, evil stepsisters, handsome romantic love interest, the stroke of midnight, the faerie god-figure, the happily-ever-after. Those were about it though. Cinderella (Cin) has a very large family: not just the three evil steps, but her father's still alive (an invalid here) and she has a bunch of crazy, perverted stepbrothers (Bourne seems to enjoy creating sexually uninhibitive characters).

The three acts all start off with clear reminders of the setting: Act 1 and 3 both begin with the sound of air raid sirens, then by hilarious newsreels of 'what to do in an air raid' (typically shown before main film features in mid-20th century). Act 2 scarily opens with the unexpected sound of the bomb: you really are quite immersed in the time period because of all those features, and also, a lot of 'period sounds' are present in the score. Bourne definitely tempers with Prokofiev's music, but it is done extremely tastefully (well, as tasteful as adding siren sounds to classical music can ever be). Prokofiev's music is quite haunting and poetic, and Bourne keeps that aspect up in most of his choreography. The dance moves are quite unusual at times though, and I couldn't tell what the references are. Perhaps West Side Story, perhaps some strange form of 40s swing dancing.

In another gender-breaking move, he makes the faerie godmother a godfather, and his choreography is very much like a swan's (like Bourne's Swan Lake). The faerie dancer looks a bit like this guy ... maybe he's modelled after him?

What I like about Bourne's ballets is that the line between reality and fantasy is often blurred. In Cinderella, it is quite hard to tell whether what you're watching is a dream sequence or a real one. The scenes often unfold, sometimes achronologically, in a way that does not allow you to pin down the context. For example, Act 2 starts with the thundering sound of the bomb, and the curtains open up to a ballroom scene totally devastated by the bomb, presumably. But within minutes, the faerie comes and reverses time, so that the ballroom is in pristine order. Then the conventional storyline unveils (girl meets boy, girl dances with boy, midnight strikes ... she loses her beautiful ballgown), but then once midnight passes, the scene switches back to a warzone with Cinder injured, and you wonder whether the romantic scene happened at all. Was it all a dream? Did they really have sex after midnight? Does it matter though?

Everything is so seamless, so magical, that it is no longer important to figure out whether we are seeing the real or the artificial. I was mesmerised by the humour, by the sexual openness, by the differences between the original and this version, and finally, by the references to real life London (Act 3 has an Underground scene, then a Thames riverbank scene, and ends in Paddington Station).

Last but not least, my favourite scene: it has to be the part when Cinder re-imagines meeting her 'prince' - an amnesiac RAF (ha!). She starts dancing with a seamstress' mannequin, happily and energetically twirls behind the curtains, and then re-emerges with the real life RAF man! I love it. What a wonderful moment of magic-realism. And then they dance together, but after a while, we are made aware of the dream element because their dance starts to become stilted. The man would stop picking her up, move mechanically like a mannequin, etc etc. So funny! And then of course, it ends with the man turning back into the dummy.

Beautiful! You can see a short clip here for yourself:

PS: read my review of Bourne's latest ballet: Sleeping Beauty

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