Alan Morrison speaks to CEO/Artistic Director and choreographer of Cinderella, Christopher Hampson, on bringing his new version of this classic rags to riches tale to Scottish Ballet.
Leggings, loose T-shirts and jogging bottoms … there’s a gang hanging out on the south side of town, and it doesn’t look like they’re going anywhere special. But then the sound of the Second Mazurka from Prokofiev’s Cinderella fills the air and, as if by the wave of a wand, magic descends upon the room. Muscles tighten into shape and movements become meticulously precise as ten pairs of dancers instantly assume a balletic grandeur. Arms stretch out in ruler-straight lines, toes rise gracefully on pointe. Yes, they shall go to the ball.
Initially, the invitation to this particular Cinderella wasn’t issued here in Glasgow but in Wellington, where Christopher Hampson created a new version of the much-loved tale for Royal New Zealand Ballet in 2007. Hampson had already choreographed Romeo and Juliet for the New Zealanders’ 40th anniversary season in 2004, and this award-winning hit had become the production that launched the company onto the international touring circuit. There was, therefore, only one man to turn to when the idea of doing another Prokofiev ballet was raised.
Given that he’s been Artistic Director of Scottish Ballet since August 2012, and was appointed as the Company’s Chief Executive/Artistic Director in 2015, it makes sense that it is Hampson’s own Cinderella that now fills the prestigious Christmas show position. He, for one, notes the parallels between the two companies who have performed this work.
“They’re similar in size,” he says, “with 32 dancers in New Zealand and 40 here [36 at time of creation in 2015]. Like us, the New Zealand company punches above its weight internationally and has always engaged with good choreographers and made excellent artistic choices. There’s a lot to share with them so it’s good to have this connection.”
Integral to that connection in this particular context is Cinderella’s production and costume design by Tracy Grant Lord. Hampson is the first to admit that, although he approaches every new piece of work with strong ideas, there will always be gaps and that’s where a key collaborator — a composer or, in this case, a designer — will come into play. Grant Lord’s design is, he says, “fused” into his interpretation of the story, and so the original costumes have been shipped half-way round the world. With its echoes of art nouveau, Grant Lord’s style for Cinderella is ripe for a revival in Scotland, the land of Charles Rennie Mackintosh.
“Yes, especially the rose motif,” agrees Hampson. “Tracy wouldn’t shy away from it being compared to art nouveau, that idea of nature coming in. We have a big branch that’s growing into Cinderella’s house, with the idea that the mother’s presence is still inside in some way.”
Nature, the garden, the rose … these are the keys that unlock Hampson’s reading of the Cinderella story. He begins the production with a prologue that places Cinderella as a little girl beside the graveside of her mother; then we see her as a young woman collecting roses there; later, at the ball, the Prince gives her a rose; and it’s in the same garden that the lovers finally reunite. It is, the director insists, a journey from dark to light that is embedded in Prokofiev’s music and, despite some fun bits of composition for the two stepsisters, one that should never be treated in a pantomime manner.
“I wanted to start it in the darkest place I could, which is at a funeral, and then follow this girl’s journey,” Hampson admits. “And in doing that I started to realise that our story of Cinderella could be about grief, about watching a girl grieving for her mother.
“The other element — because it can’t all be dark — is ‘where does the magic come in?’ She plants a tree and her tears water the tree and it grows into a magic tree. I liked the idea of nature helping her, something really organic, something that isn’t a commodity. She’s not getting the best dress, she’s getting one that’s made by silk moths and she’s getting spiders to weave things — something that money can’t buy, literally."
In other words, Hampson has made a point of avoiding the rather outdated sense of this fairytale being a simple rags-to-riches story that offers a girl a way out of ordinary life by marrying her off to a handsome prince.
“Absolutely,” he says emphatically. “The way out from her situation is she needs to find a soulmate but, interestingly, so does the Prince. You see the Prince at the ball and he’s not only tired, he’s lonely — and he needs another lonely soul. At the end, we go back to the garden where her mother’s tree is, and I replay the beginning where she goes to pick roses every day, and she just bumps into this handsome young man. It’s her Prince but he’s meeting her on a neutral playing field, if you like.”
Hampson takes this theme beyond the central pair to the rest of the family — the father, the stepmother, the two stepsisters, even the Prince’s two best buddies. Everyone has a stake in this story and they all get an outcome at the end of it. Cinderella’s father, for example, is finally able to look at his late wife’s portrait and overcome his drunkenness. The younger and sillier of the stepsisters, who actually gets on with Cinderella when her bossy older sibling isn’t around, gets her man too. And the stepmother and nasty stepsister? Well, it’s not too bad a comeuppance. They’re stuck together and probably deserve each other.
The other interesting figure, of course, is the Fairy Godmother and in Hampson’s version she’s very much a surrogate mother to the orphaned title character. It’s even there in Grant Lord’s design, the two linked by being seen initially as silhouetted women in large hats. So is this magical figure a reincarnation of Cinderella's real mother?
“I don’t mind people reading their own thing into it,” says Hampson. “It can be her mother for some people, or it can be the spirit of her mother, or some benevolent kind of spirit, if you like. But we do have this idea that the Fairy Godmother has planned the entire thing for both the Prince and Cinderella to meet. It’s all engineered, and the dressmakers and the shoemakers constantly keep trying to fit Cinderella because that’s who they think they’ve got to fit. So there are little clues in there. These days you’ve got to put that bit more in it for an audience.”
With that, Hampson heads back to Scottish Ballet’s rehearsal rooms in Tramway. Challenges remain for him. On one hand, he has been able to cast company members to fit existing character parts devised for the New Zealand production (“my usual suspects for grasshoppers, because I know they move that way”). But on the other, he has to tweak his original choreography to fit the strengths and personalities of individual dancers in his current company. The result, like Cinderella’s clichéd shoe, will be a perfect fit.
Alan Morrison is a freelance journalist and former Group Arts Editor with The Herald and Sunday Herald