Cinderella, the immortal fairy tale, needs no introduction. Engrained in European folklore, one of its oldest and best-known written versions is by French author Charles Perrault (1628–1703). It was this text which served as the libretto for a ballet by Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev (1891–1953).
Prokofiev’s ballet has a very distinctive style that is characteristic to the composer. Emphasising the mood of the story, the score is filled with expression, humour, poetry and tenderness on the one hand, and a scent of malevolence and repression on the other. The score is dream material for choreographers, and as the audience watches the story unfold on the stage it also indulges in the matchless beauty of Prokofiev's music.
Attracted by the magical world, the ballet has become a guaranteed magnet for viewers across the world, finding a way to reach the hearts of the older generation as well as children by exploring the fairy tale they know so well.
As expected, Cairo’s ballet fans flocked in their hundreds to the Cairo Opera House on 23 February, the opening night. The fact that the last time the Cairo Opera Ballet Company staged Cinderella was over 15 years ago added an additional thrill.
The first of the five nights was fully sold-out days prior to the performance. The hall was full to the brim and expectations were high. Naturally, when after an introduction the curtain opened on the ballet's first act, our hearts immediately went out to the poor girl sitting next to the fireplace, Anja Ahcin, the company's first dancer in the role of Cinderella.
However, the ballet is much more than a bittersweet story; it is a serious work of art with the score firmly entwined with the libretto, visually translated into a very demanding choreography by Frederic Ashton.
The Cairo Opera Ballet Company made a few changes to the work however. The ballet's director, the late Abdel-Moneim Kamel, implemented a few modifications in both thematic details and choreography, creating a new vision of the story. The ballet directed by Kamel is now brought to life by the company's artistic director, Erminia Kamel, who herself danced Cinderella in the previous staging of the work in the 1990s.
Abdel-Moneim Kamel – to whom today's ballet is dedicated – created an interesting fusion of the characters of Cinderella's father and the magician (or a fairy godmother as some versions of the story indicate), a procedure that carries a charming element of human redemption. The father who fails to protect his daughter from the vicious stepmother and stepsisters makes it up to her as a magician, a character at the core of the Cinderella's final happiness.
The formula proved successful, especially with Amr Farouk in the role of the father. Farouk’s high jumps and well-executed grand jetés are very impressive, and his technique testifies to a broader artistic picture of a technically capable dancer.
This creative toying with characters did not however end there. Not only are the roles of both Cinderella's stepsisters performed by male dancers, their constant presence in the trimmed ballet becomes so dominant that they often steal attention from other characters.
Casting male dancers in women's roles seems to be a way of removing any possible traces of feminine subtleness from the nasty girls. However, the execution of the idea caught the ballet in a trap whereby the farcical elements of negative characters defeated depth. The removal of the stepmother from the libretto additionally expanded the ground for comedy executed by men in disguise.
Apart from the father, manipulations within the core characters put at stake many of the ballet’s humane elements. To top the thematic simplifications, the ballet has numerous scenes removed.
Although the director would rightly argue that the main story is respected – and it is – its current version is a cold run-through of the basic elements, deprived of the emotional charge that the missing scenes provide.
For instance, in the original ballet, Act Three opens with the scenes portraying the Prince's (Ahmed Yehia) search for Cinderella, whom he met during the previous night's ball. Those scenes were removed from the Cairo Opera's version of the ballet, despite that they create an important psychological build-up, one that leads to the cathartic final reunion of the two protagonists in Cinderella's house.
Deprived of the sentimental longing for Cinderella – beautifully underlined by Prokofiev's music – the ballet leads instead into an abrupt rescue of the girl from the not-so-feminine stepsisters.
The audience, however, gratified the dancers with applause after each scene. Though this must have provided a rewarding feeling for the dancers, the flow of the whole ballet was broken by the performers bowing in response.
The scenography – executed by Beshir Mohamed Ali, Mohamed Abdel Razik and Ahmed Salah – proved equally precarious. We may forgive the absence of many of the story’s iconic elements such as the pumpkin, mice or horses, as long as the simpler set leads to a unified creative vision expressed through other artistic elements.
The scenography of Cinderella relies in most cases on the fabric located upstage with images representing either pots and pans in Cinderella's house, or clock gears that infuse the palace scenes with a sense of time.
The rest of the set brought into play a number of aesthetically random elements, such as the aluminium-like stairs which occasionally reflected the projectors' light back to the audience, and the floor lamps in quasi-futuristic style on both sides of the stage.
With the Cairo Opera Orchestra (conducted by David Crescenzi) struggling to deliver many of the musically complex passages and the light (designed by Yasser Shaalan) missing several of the dancers’ entries, the first evening of Cinderella resembled a general rehearsal.
Although there is no remedy to the absence of certain scenes and characters, it is very probable that the glitches that characterised the first night will be fixed in future performances.
The ballet will be staged daily until Friday 27 February, at 8pm, in the Cairo Opera House main hall.