English National Ballet’s Cinderella ‘in-the-round’ at Royal Albert Hall ★★★★★

Alina Cojocaru in Christopher Wheeldons Cinderella in the round. Photo by Ian Gavan

English National Ballet‘s Cinderella at the Royal Albert Hall is a grand, sparkling spectacular, full of divine dancing, decadent sets, and colourful costumes that brings the entire rainbow to the stage.

The opulent Royal Albert Hall is the perfect setting for Christopher Wheeldon’s Cinderella performed ‘in-the-round’ – literally a round stage surrounded by the audience. This arrangement brings the dancers so close that you can almost touch their glorious tutus and costumes; see their facial expressions and as they dash passed you up the stairs you’re so close you can see how they knot the ribbons on their pointe shoes.

Alina Cojocaru, Katja Khaniukova, Emma Hawes in Cinderella in the round. Photo by Laurent Liotardo
Alina Cojocaru, Katja Khaniukova, Emma Hawes in Cinderella in the round. Photo by Laurent Liotardo

Wheeldon’s Cinderella works beautifully in-the-round, with large scale stage, movable props and an ever transforming projected backdrop telling the timeless tale of the bullied young girl, whose dreams come true as she is magically transformed and heads to a ball where she meets her prince and lives happily ever after.

Wheeldon’s genius is not just in the stunning choreography and entertaining characters, but also the wondrous scenes from the moment little Cinders takes to the stage and we see her ill mother carried off by angels following her tragic death, and poor little Cinders finds herself living with her new step-family, with the wicked stepmother and sisters.

He also adds his own touch of magic to the tale with six omnipresent and impressive angel-like male dancers who (representing fate), dressed darkly, are always there to protect, guide and support Cinderella.

Alina Cojocaru and Isaac-Hernandez in Christopher Wheeldons Cinderella in the round. Photo by Laurent Liotardo
Alina Cojocaru and Isaac-Hernandez in Christopher Wheeldon’s Cinderella in the round. Photo by Laurent Liotardo

Cinderella is performed by principal dancer Alina Cojocaru, who beautifully portrays the sweet and innocent young girl. Alina’s lightness in her movements, her quick pointe work, soft and swirling pirouettes adds to the youthful exuberance of Cinderella. Even as she cleans for her mean step-family, she is a delight, especially set against her wicked and hilarious stepsisters, performed fabulously by Emma Hawes and Katja Khaniukova. The two dancers made the sisters almost loveable with their over the top and competitive natures.

But the biggest surprise was seeing the formidable prima ballerina and ENB Artistic Director Tamara Rojo playing the vain, ugly stepmother and did she play the part! Her performance as the wicked, drunken lush almost stole the show. With a grey streak in her hair, she brought the character to life with incredibly skilled acting, coupled with flawless dancing. Tamara’s facial and body expressions were Academy Award worthy, as she cruelly laughed throwing her head back while revelling in her torture of poor little Cinders.

Alina Cojocaru, Katja Khaniukova, Emma Hawes in Cinderella in the round. Photo by Laurent Liotardo
Alina Cojocaru, Katja Khaniukova, Emma Hawes in Cinderella in the round. Photo by Laurent Liotardo

But fate has other ideas for Cinderella and she meets her prince (performed by Isaac Hernández) with his friend (Jeffrey Cirio) who are out delivering invitations to the ball. When Isaac and Alina meet, they are truly prince and princess. Their softness and grace bind them as one and they are absorbing as they fall in love.

The challenge of dancing in-the-round, is making the scenes and characters travel around the stage so that all sides of the circular audience get to see the beautiful performance, and Alina and Isaac ensured that noone missed a moment of their magical connection.

English National Ballet in Christopher Wheeldons Cinderella in the round. Photo by Ian Gavan
English National Ballet in Christopher Wheeldon’s Cinderella in the round. Photo by Ian Gavan

As the ugly stepfamily prepares to head to the ball, Wheeldon takes the traditional fairytale into a different direction with the arrival of mystical spirits born from a tree that oversees the mothers’ grave, and who give Cinderella her beautiful gown and the midnight warning.

The splendour of this scene is almost unimaginable as four large groups of dancers dressed in golds, blues, greens and yellows fill the stage. There’s also white birds, green tree like characters, and other weird mystical beings. But it’s the male dancers who truly shine in the crescendo of colour, with high leaps and complex turns that make them look like they can fly. The multi-coloured tutus and costumes and beautiful waltzing and partnering culminates into an awe-inspiring magical moment.

Alina Cojocaru in Christopher Wheeldons Cinderella in the round. Photo by Laurent Liotardo
Alina Cojocaru in Christopher Wheeldon’s Cinderella in the round. Photo by Laurent Liotardo

Act II opens with a magnificent crystal chandelier that rises high above the grand ballroom as 50 dancers adorned in dark blue satin run in pairs on the stage. The effect is a luxurious elegance as the dancers’ waltz across the floor. The hilarious ugly stepfamily arrives, and the two sisters attempt to seduce the Prince performing a funny duet that sees them fight, tug and pull each other until they land to laughter in a mess of splits. It’s a great performance by the two dancers who brilliantly show off the characters while delivering commanding performances that get as many wows as laughs.

But it’s Alina’s entrance in her divine golden gown that brings the Royal Albert Hall together in a shared moment of awe as she finally finds her prince and they dance deeply in love. Alina and Isaac’s performance is magical, as they glide across the stage in a pas de deux that’s so touching that when the clock starts to hit midnight your heart feels for them. They are incredible together, they perform with a deep connection that resonates through every movement as they fall deeper in love.

English National Ballet in Christopher Wheeldons Cinderella in the round. Photo by Ian Gavan
English National Ballet in Christopher Wheeldons Cinderella in the round. Photo by Ian Gavan

After Cinders dashes off, and the prince takes her abandoned shoe to every household in the land to find his one true love, Wheeldon brings the humour back as every desperate woman, man, and even a suit of armour turns out to stick their toe into the golden ballet slipper. After travelling to Cinders home, the prince finally finds true love and the fairytale ends with a sumptuous royal wedding that fills the Royal Albert Hall with pure joy.

Cinderella is a spectacular ballet on a Disney-like scale that everyone can enjoy, so much so that I’m taking my little niece for a matinee showing and then coming back for a third time to watch prima ballerina Maria Kochetkova step into Cinders’ golden slippers.

Reviewed on 6 June at Royal Albert Hall

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