In the process of moving a classic fairy tale into a dangerous World War II environment, Matthew Bourne's full-evening dance-drama "Cinderella" restores a much-abused score by Sergei Prokofiev to full power--indeed, makes it better music by grounding it in the wartime realities and desperate dreams of the time when Prokofiev composed it.
As in his triumphant "Swan Lake" two years earlier, Bourne heard the music differently than his predecessors and created compelling justifications for the qualities that other choreographers ignored: in this case, Prokofiev's sour cynicism and brooding melancholy. For once, this music does not undercut a jocular balletic charade; it speaks deeply about the characters and situations that Bourne develops from the enduring tale about an oppressed young woman, a glittering ball and a glass slipper.
At its American premiere Wednesday in the Ahmanson Theatre, it proved a more dazzling spectacle than Bourne's "Swan Lake" due to its array of mobile, atmospheric Lez Brotherston sets and imaginative Rick Fisher lighting effects--but an experience just as focused on the power of dreams and the search for an ideal love, a love again personified by the magnetic Adam Cooper. Playing a wounded, disoriented fighter pilot who eventually heals into Cinderella's sweet-natured husband, Cooper is transformed in Bourne's great dream scene of Act 2 into the fantasy prince that she'd been seeking amid the air raids: suave, passionate, devastatingly sexy. But where the gulf between dreams and reality led to violent death in "Swan Lake," here it inspires Cinderella's self-empowerment and mature acceptance of human limitations.
Moreover, it inspires a radiant performance by Sarah Wildor of the Royal Ballet, a dancer convincingly mousy and wistful in Act 1 but blossoming into starry glamour and strength of character as her story unfolds. Bourne sets against her not only the usual evil Stepmother (Isabel Mortimer, a former Queen in "Swan Lake") and nasty Stepsisters (Heather Habens and Sarah Barron) but a pair of bizarre older Stepbrothers (Scott Ambler and Ben Wright, the alternating princes of "Swan Lake") and also one horrid child (Andrew Walkinshaw, the troubled boy in "Swan Lake").
Guiding her out of their dysfunctional orbit: former alternate lead-Swan Will Kemp as a guardian angel who looks like mercury in a gleaming Brotherston suit and dances just as fluidly, defining in a spectacular early solo the complex, unconventional dance language Bourne develops for the bulk of "Cinderella." Don't expect elegant neoclassicism a la Frederick Ashton or even mock-classicism a la Maguy Marin. Bourne is after something very different.
Where ballet projects upward and outward to establish a linear silhouette, his "Cinderella" choreography pulls bodies downward and inward toward their centers, with steps and gestural statements breaking the silhouette into expressive components--personality signatures, if you like--almost overloaded with detail. Only Kemp as the nonhuman angel is allowed to be an abstraction, and only in a fantasy love-duet for Cooper and Wildor do we see sustained ballet-line. Otherwise, Bourne captures the diversity of Cinderella's stepfamily and Londoners enduring the Blitz through a character-dance idiom with links to plenty of show-dance predecessors (Agnes de Mille, Hanya Holm and Michael Kidd, for starters) but always fresh and vital whether he's reinventing social dances of the 1940s or portraying the pilot's disastrous descent into London's depths to find the lady who fits the lost shoe.
If anything is predictable about Bourne's "Cinderella" after his "Swan Lake," it's the brilliant mix of humor and hallucination that make both works so unnervingly contemporary, the spirit and flair of his Adventures in Motion Pictures company, the excellence of the amplified, 28-member orchestra--conducted on Wednesday by Daryl Griffith. Throughout the eight-week run, Cooper, Wildor, Kemp and Mortimer alternate with other AMP principals in the leading roles and often mix with them in lineups that break down the standard first-cast, second-cast hierarchy of the ballet world.
With too many subsidiary characters vying for attention and too many bright but undeveloped ideas, "Cinderella" is far from perfect. For example, a tender duet for Cinderella and her wheelchair-bound father (Barry Atkinson) almost blossoms into dance but keeps retreating to prosaic character mime--disappointing since her feelings need to be more strongly established before they shape both the dream scene and finale. Moreover, Bourne's latest creation may lack the high-profile controversy that made "Swan Lake" an instant phenomenon. However, this exclusive American engagement proves that its predecessor was no fluke: Bourne has the knack of taking dancers and audiences to the heart of a familiar story and score in ways at once hilarious, profound and stunningly original.
* Matthew Bourne's "Cinderella" runs through May 23 at the Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave. Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2 and 8 p.m.; Sundays and May 6, 13 and 20, 2 p.m. $22.50-$65. (213) 628-2772.