Something for all dance tastes in Edinburgh last weekend: a pedigree production of Cinderella from Scottish Ballet and The Mother, made by Arthur Pita for Natalia Osipova and based on the 1847 Hans Christian Andersen story about a woman who sacrifices her hair, blood and eyes to persuade Death to relinquish her sick child.
Quite why anyone thought that this grim tale would be Christmas treat material is anyone’s guess, and sales were not brisk despite the promise of a star ballerina and the multi-award-winning Jonathan Goddard giving a tour de force as a shape-shifting, gender fluid Death.
The live score is a quirky and atmospheric mix of guitars, percussion and voice, written and performed by Frank Moon. He is joined in the pit by co-writer David Price, who has added a soundscape of heartbeats, thunderstorms and baby cries. Jann Seabra’s ingenious revolving set confines the action to the mother’s grotty three-roomed apartment, a conscious departure from Andersen’s tale, which sends her on a long journey through the pitiless winter landscape. The flat’s filthy conditions are realised in nauseating detail but are overdone — social services would have come knocking long before Death arrived.
Andersen’s tales can be hauntingly beautiful but it is possible to tire of his miserabilism and his readiness to give young women — mermaids, match girls, wearers of scarlet footwear — a hard time. Pita clearly has a thing for dark and difficult narratives and his sly wit can usually find purchase in the most relentless painfests — The Little Match Girl, Metamorphosis — and transform them into absorbing and entertaining dance drama. But The Mother seems to have defeated him. His doggedly downbeat handling makes for a slightly monotonous 90 minutes and the would-be upbeat coda in which the pregnant Mother unpacks her shopping for baby clothes is unsatisfying. Is it a fresh start or just a flashback?
Goddard has a flair for black comedy (he was electrifying in Mark Bruce’s Dracula) and Osipova is a dance actress who contains multitudes: a firecracker Kitri in Don Quixote, a heart-rending Giselle. Although The Mother makes little use of their dramatic and stylistic range, both give powerful performances.
Osipova spends most of the evening in a bloodstained shift and her body becomes the incarnation of anguish, muscles recoiling at every fresh infant scream, thrashing solos testament to maternal agonies. Pita doesn’t hesitate to exploit her classical box of tricks, making the most of her lizard-lick legwork and her unearthly powers of elevation. Yet the rich possibilities offered by her partnership with Goddard aren’t fully explored and the duets, while intensely played, seldom rise above a kind of ragdoll jitterbug given little room for manoeuvre by Seabra’s set.
Simpler, more seasonal pleasures at the Festival Theatre, where Christopher Hampson’s Cinderella has begun its eight-week winter tour. Originally made for Royal New Zealand Ballet in 2007, the attractive production is danced to Prokofiev’s bittersweet 1945 score and designed by Tracy Grant Lord. Her sparely elegant designs combine art nouveau foliage with sketchy interiors whose grand cornices and Fragonard pastels read like a mood board for a stately makeover.
The scenario takes very few liberties with Perrault’s fairy tale (give or take pumpkin and mice) and only Cinderella’s father, a hopeless lush in wife-beater vest and threadbare dressing gown, strikes a false note. The (female) Ugly Sisters generate easy, unmalicious laughs with a baby-doll wardrobe, flex-footed galumphing and plenty of knicker-flashing pratfalls.
Hampson’s stagecraft lets us know exactly where to look. The party guests don’t rhubarb too strenuously (always a risk) so that focus remains squarely on Cinders and her Prince even when their moves are being mirrored by the 10 couples around them. Sophie Martin’s heroine has quick feet, easy turns and a pin-sharp arabesque, and she is smoothly partnered by Barnaby Rook-Bishop who has feathery entrechats and beautiful manners.
The steps for their duets and variations are mainstream without being generic and, like all Hampson’s fluent, musical writing, are on the easiest possible terms with the score, never feeling obliged to match moves to every last note and giving Prokofiev and the Scottish Ballet Orchestra plenty of room to breathe.
Edinburgh International Conference Centre
Edinburgh Festival Theatre
‘The Mother’ comes to London’s Southbank Centre in June. ‘Cinderella’ tours to February 2, scottishballet.co.uk