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Flash Review 1, 3-24: Ashley, King of Scots
How a 'Sassenach' Proved a Dance Company was not Quite Dead Yet

By Josephine Leask
Copyright 2006 Josephine Leask

LONDON -- Until last week, when it brought a mixed program and a new version of "Cinderella" to Sadler's Wells, Scottish Ballet had not played here for six years, during which time the company has been reshaped, more or less behind closed doors, in a studio at its Glasgow headquarters, under the careful eye of artistic director Ashley Page. When the former Royal Ballet principal, who began choreographing for that company under Anthony Dowell, took over in 2002, the troupe was on its knees with no money and no artistic direction, and on the brink of closing. Page was a 'risk' in the Scottish dance audience's eyes. First and foremost, he was a threatening Sassenach (to cite the derogatory name the Scots give to the English) who embodied all the 'threatening' sophisticated and fashionable trappings of a dancer and choreographer living in London, and had a reputation for creating 'controversial' works with his expansive network of English and international collaborators.

Page in his turn also had pretty firm ideas about what he wanted to do with this burnt-out troupe, which included bringing in new and young national and international talent and training the company up so that it would be versatile enough to handle a broad spectrum of classical and contemporary styles. He consequently took on the role of curator, inviting a range of choreographers to make new work and reinterpret existing work for the company so that its repertory could really broaden out. William Forsythe, Stephen Petronio, and Siobhan Davies are among those who have worked with the company since Page arrived. Also on his agenda was the re-education of a generally narrow-minded audience by exposing it to diversity rather than sticking with 'safe' tradition. But Page struggled with Scottish Ballet's public who, in spite of being largely drawn from the increasingly cosmopolitan city of Glasgow, didn't like the company's new look, disapproving of its flamboyant designs and racy costumes and remaining wary of the new choreographers he was introducing.

However, Page persisted with his vision. He unflinchingly presented ultimatums to the company's board, threatening to quit if it didn't support his vision, and tirelessly made Scottish Ballet's case to the funding bodies. When he was finally able to bring the company to Sadler's Wells and London, it looked fresh, affluent and confident. When I caught "Cinderella" March 15, I felt that Page's reworked but not radical version of the ballet, set to Prokoviev's score, was a feast for the eyes, both glamorous and gorgeous.

Crafted by the international designer Antony McDonald, a long-time Page collaborator, the sets are gaudy and highly kitsch, resembling the interiors of post-modern designer Phillip Starck. These include bright pinks and greens, busy wallpaper, leopard skin patterns and ornate furnishings. It's a collision of a traditional 18th-century aesthetic and experimental 20th-century 'art school' concepts or, as the program notes put it, "Vivienne Westwood meets Andy Warhol." Likewise the lavish costumes are a mixture of old French aristocracy and contemporary Punk as seen by fashion designers such as Galliano and Lacroix. What is interesting is that even the party costumes of Cinderella and the Prince are noticeably toned down and modest in comparison to those of almost all the other characters, as if to make us really focus on the primary couple's dancing, rather then their characters.

The narrative of "Cinderella" has also been injected with a sinister edge, true to most fairy tales, but not often seen in traditional versions of the ballet. The stepmother (in the cast I saw, Limor Ziv), a sexually aggressive dominatrix, forces her daughters to mutilate their feet in order to fit into the glass slipper and there is an undercurrent of child abuse in the manner in which she treats Cinderella, as she whips her and stuffs her mouth with paper. The final scene of the ballet depicts Cinderella's stepsisters (Patricia Hines and Diana Loosmore) as impoverished, decrepit creatures, limping along with their eyes having been "pecked out by two white doves," pushing their decaying mother in a wheelchair. Other dark depictions include casting Cinderella's father (Robert Doherty) as an alcoholic and the fairy Godmother (Soon Ja Lee) as a Gothic Diva with all kinds of surreal tricks up her fashionable sleeves. The two most traditionally drawn characters are of course Cinderella, danced by the very petite Tomomi Sato, and her Prince, the equally slight Adam Blyde. Sato, in spite of being waif-like, emanates a glowing warmth in her dancing, while Blyde is rather less engaging to watch.

Another fantastical addition to the narrative is a scene situated in an 'Enchanted Garden,' where the Godmother introduces the four seasons -- Joanne Bungay, Sophie Martin, Martina Forioso and Ruth Vaquerizo Garcia -- all exquisitely dressed and possessing characteristics and movement dynamics relevant to each season: broad and open gestures for spring and summer, fast and spiky for autumn and subdued, inward looking movements for winter.

Each scene unfolds smoothly, like the turning pages of a riveting book. The actual dancing is upbeat and the performers are generous to the audience in the way they project. Although they are young, their interpretation of character through an execution of technique, gesture and mime is considered and heart-felt. While some of the stage designs and costumes are fantastically flamboyant, the dancing is not, but rather measured and compact, although never belittled by the rich designer trimmings.

Surely this production of "Cinderella," which shows off Scottish Ballet as it's never been seen before, will charm even the most inflexible of Scottish hearts, with its compromising mixture of familiar and unfamiliar, magic and integrity.

 

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