“It’s incredibly difficult, and fitting all the steps in is a challenge, but once you get a grasp on it, it gives you this amazing sense of freedom …” Five of our dancers, along with our artistic director, talk about the pleasures and pitfalls of learning Alexei Ratmansky’s unique choreography for Cinderella.
Principal Artist Ty King Wall was one of Ratmansky’s original Princes, so he's danced this role since 2013.
What's special about Alexei's choreography?
There are contradictions. There’s this immense beauty and fluidity, and there’s things that are strange and unusual, almost awkward: like Cinderella’s solo in the second act, when she does a little jig with her fists clenched. Those moments really catch your eye; they make the audience curious. There’s a lot of lateral movement, a lot of 'body': Alexei was always saying “more body, more body” – that’s bending at the waist, moving the upper body, going right down to the floor, moving from side to side. It’s a really Russian way of moving, that expansive use of the body. In Russia they have these giant stages, and you see the dancers powering through space because they have so much room to move. I think Alexei’s choreography reflects that.
What does it feel like to dance?
You’re not dancing within yourself, you have to push right to the limits, push as much as humanly possible. For both the Prince and the Cinderella, once you start in that second act, you don’t really stop: it’s solo into pas de deux into another solo and back into pas de deux, with very little recovery time. Your instinct as a dancer is to save yourself just a little bit so you’ve got enough gas in the tank for the pas de deux that’s coming up, but to do his choreography justice, you’ve got to stay in the moment and keep pushing to your limit – then past it!
The partnering is deceptively hard. When you do overhead lifts, you can straighten your arms and lock them, and once you’re in that position it’s quite easy. But a lot of the lifts in the Cinderella pas de deux are mid-level, where you’re carrying your partner in front of you, at head-level. That, combined with the lateral movement, moving backwards and forwards over the stage and stretching to your limits, is physically exhausting. But because the choreography has so much fluidity in it, when you’re watching it, you don’t get a sense of how tiring it is for the guy.Ty King-Wall with Leanne Stojmenov. Photography Daniel Boud
What other challenges are there?
There are lots of unusual combinations. There are double sissonnes from fourth – you’d usually take those from fifth position. It sometimes switches from a turned-out to a turned-in position, which is always a challenge for a ballet dancer! You often won’t get set preparations for a pirouette or a jump – one step leads straight into the other. So you have to anticipate in your mind; by the time you get there, it’s too late, especially in the solos, which are quite fast, with a lot of petit allegro. Sometimes, with the jumps, where you’d usually think of going up, you have to pull yourself out of the air, otherwise you’ll be too slow. You have to let your feet take over. It’s almost like Bournonville choreography, the quick jumps, the quick-twitch fibres – which makes sense, because Alexei danced with the Royal Danish Ballet.
What was Alexei like to work with?
He’s very gentle, very softly spoken: very expressive, open, generous, gives a lot of himself. He’d never rage at you, he’d say just say, ‘Hmmm, no, that’s not quite right.’ It’s like that parent who says to you, ‘I’m not angry, I’m just disappointed.’ If you couldn’t get what he wanted, you’d feel so bad! You really want to get it right for him.
What did he tell you about the character of the Prince?
His first entrance, the way he comes haring out from the corner, has a lot of impact. Alexei told us, “I want you coming out like you’re driving a Lamborghini.” He’s a little bit showy, a bit of a playboy: he’s a nice guy, but he’s always had luxuries in life, but he’s searching for fulfillment, for someone to connect with. When Cinderella arrives, she’s like a breath of fresh air.
In the third pas de deux, an element of realism comes into it. Relationships are not straightforward, they’re not fairytales: there’s tension and conflict and struggle, things we have to work through. The projections [behind the couple as they dance] show the progression of the four seasons, and it’s kind of like you’re seeing the progression of their relationship, from the sweet honeymoon phase, through obstacles and road blocks, working through it. It’s a very human, very relatable way to finish a fairytale.Ty King-Wall. Photography Daniel Boud
Principal Artist Amy Harris had the part of the Stepmother made on her by Ratmansky in 2013.
What's it like working with Alexei?
I love working with him, because he has everything planned out when you come into a rehearsal; he’s very clear, you know exactly what he’s trying to achieve, he shows you everything he wants. You don’t have to layer on the style later – from the moment you learn that first step, that unique movement is inside you. From there, it becomes more about the character and telling the story. And in this there was a lot of freedom; Alexei was very clear about the movement, but he would never dictate, say, facial expressions – he would give you a hint about the character, then leave you to develop your own interpretation. Watching the company’s performances, I’ve noticed that people play the Stepmum and sisters quite differently.
He was very calm, a man of few words. But sometimes a really playful side would come out, like when he demonstrated how the stepmother and her daughters should rush back to the couch. He threw himself on the couch and said, “You have to take a really fabulous pose!”
How does the character manifest through the movement?
The Stepmother is quite brutal, but in the second act you become lighter and kookier. You get less of the punchy arms and turned-in feet and quick-twitch movement; it becomes more balletic, more flirtatious.
What is she like to dance?
It’s a bit brutal on your body! I felt like I had to be in character at least 15 minutes before the performance, because from the moment that curtain goes up and you throw that wig on the ground, you’re into it! So I always wanted to be super-warm and ready. I like to do that first solo full-out before the curtain goes up so that my heart rate is up and I’m ready to go, because you’re literally sitting on a chair and then you go from zero to 100 in a fraction of a second. Because the character is so intense, every bone, every muscle in your body is tight and stressed. The hard thing, too, is that you have a lot of short, sharp bursts of energy – with lots of costume changes in between!
Senior Artist Valerie Tereshchenko was a member of the corps de ballet when Ratmansky created Cinderella in 2013; she danced the Stepmother soon afterwards, and in every season since.
What is special about Alexei's choreography?
He wouldn’t just make a step that fit the music; he was also really able to hear the dynamics of the music, so he would make a step that would be, say, fast-slow, fast-slow – he’d really play with the music, going from quick to melting in the one phrase. He wanted a lot of extreme 'body'. Everything was exaggerated: if you were going to be low, you would almost be horizontal to the floor. Everything was at full capacity. There was a quirkiness; some of it doesn’t even look balletic, like when the ball guests make a choo-choo train. He's almost created his own language, keeping the structure of classical ballet but saying things differently.
What was it like to work with him?
He always came with material ready, he’d have a sequence that he would demonstrate – I still have strong visual memories of him doing a particular step, because it was so particular to the way that he moved. When he’d run out of ideas, he’d always say, ‘Just clean up what I’ve done – I’ll be back,’ and then he’d go off to an office and come back with more ideas. I have no idea what he was doing when he was gone!
What's the hardest part of dancing the Stepmother?
Making ugly shapes! A lot of the Stepmother’s shapes are parallel, or hunched, with a tucked pelvis – all a bit skewed, or off, things you’d never do in ballet. You can hardly look at yourself doing it! But it’s part of the character. At the beginning I was still trying to make it look nice, but then I realised - it’s not supposed to look nice.
Senior Artist Cristiano Martino was in his first year with the company when Ratmansky created Cinderella. He debuted as the Prince in 2018.
What was it like for you as such a young dancer, working with this fabled choreographer?
It was actually the first creation process I was involved in – it was my first year in the company. I was a ball guest, a hairdresser and one of the temptations. He was really good at getting the most out of you. You’d think you were giving your all, and then he’d come over and stretch you just that little bit further. He was quite calm, but very energetic, very positive. You wanted to work hard for him.
I’ve always really loved this ballet. I’ve done almost every male role in it. In the first seasons, I was inside one of the topiary metronomes, and I’d get to watch Leanne Stojmenov and Daniel Gaudiello doing their pas de deux. It’s been a constant in my career, so it’s been amazing to do the lead role.
What are your thoughts on the character of the Prince?
The Prince is a challenge, because he can come off as a bit aloof, a bit arrogant. Even in his first meeting with Cinderella, he’s a bit … ‘Don’t you know who I am?’ But I like to play it that he’s so madly in love with her, she’s the driving motivation for everything.
In the middle of the pas de deux where they meet, there’s a series of gestures with entwined arms. Alexei didn’t want to do traditional ballet mime, so he just made up his own gestures. They are having a conversation, and you need to give it the intricacies that you would if you were actually talking.
How is that first explosive entrance?
Ooof! To begin with there's a false start to watch out for, a phrase of music that’s exactly the same as your entrance, but 16 bars too early. So you’re standing in the wings, 100% adrenaline … I would say it’s one of the worst entrances I’ve ever done, in terms of nerves. You come on with a series of jetés, then there’s a lovely consecutive pirouette and a tour to the knee with a spotlight in your face. It’s quite a moment! When you nail it, though, it feels great!
What does the choreography in general feel like to dance?
Alexei's choreography asks a lot of the dancer in terms of full use of body, the breadth of movement you have to fit into a certain eight-count phrase ... then he'll throw in some syncopation! It’s incredibly difficult, and fitting all the steps in is a challenge, but once you get a grasp on it, it gives you this amazing sense of freedom.
The pas de deux are doubly as challenging because you’re so exhausted – they would easily be the most physically challenging thing I’ve done. I was so glad that I came into the Prince having just done Spartacus, which was a real endurance challenge, because my fitness was way up there. Ty and Chen and all the boys that had done it before had told me, ‘It’s a killer – prep yourself.’ The partnering is so hard because so much of that on-and-off balance stuff with your partner comes when you’ve got sweat dripping in your eyes and you can barely breathe!
Senior Artist Dimity Azoury, Cinderella's original Moon, debuted as Cinderella, with Cristiano Martino, in 2018.
What is your special relationship with Cinderella?
I first performed in the ballet in its first season, in 2013. I’d just got married [to fellow dancer Rudy Hawkes], and I had three days off at the start of the rehearsal period, then I came straight back into an audition for Venus, on a wedding high! I’ve had five years of watching all the different Cinderellas, and listening to the music, and dreaming of how you’d do roles – I’ve grown up with it, really. I was a ball guest, I was the original Moon! Then I moved on to Venus – and now Cinderella.
How does it feel to dance Alexei's choreography?
Absolutely beautiful. That range of movement is not something we get to explore every day. Trying to push that movement within the musicality is the challenge of it. There are a lot of steps, and a lot of detail in those steps. Alexei always pushed us to work it to its full extent.
The pas de deux feel as good as they look, which is not always the case! They’re hard, but when you’re listening to the orchestra and you’re in the story, they’re not hard.
When I was a ball guest, we would have to cross backstage during this one section of the pas de deux when the Prince and Cinderella meet, and it was my favourite bit of the music. I would always dance the Cinderella part along with the principals, behind the set – so it was cool to actually get to do it on stage!
Artistic Director David McAllister commissioned Cinderella, The Australian Ballet's first full-length Ratmansky work.
What makes Alexei's choreography so special?
For me, it’s the epaulement, the flow of the upper body. You really see the connection between his choreographic language and the heritage of Petipa – and actually, in the years since he made Cinderella, Ratmansky has done some really detailed reconstructions of Petipa ballets. Petipa’s choreography has a lot of petit allegro in the feet, a lot of beats, but a really expansive upper body. In the late 20th century, we lost a lot of that epaulement in the classics, but it’s there in Ratmansky.
For a lot of contemporary choreographers, it’s all about the big picture, spectacular lifts and jumps, death-defying aerial work. In Cinderella, you might have some of those lifts, but it’s more about the beautiful way bodies mould and float around each other.
What was it like having him in the studio?
He was so particular, in such a nice way! He makes the story so clear, without defaulting to ballet mime. He inhabited and demonstrated every role, from the Prince to Cinderella to the Stepmother to the Dancing Master. The way he talked about the storytelling and losing your body completely to tell the story – it made you remember what’s important about ballet. When he was giving a gesture or a step, he’d never say ‘and then you do this’ – he’d always say, ‘and then you say this’ – it was always about telling the story.
A lot of the dancers speak about Alexei going off for a short break and then coming back with more movement. None of them knew what he was doing ... do you?
I do! He’d sit there with headphones on and listen to the score, and then come back out with more movement. It was almost like the music was directly feeding his ideas.