Review – Cipollino – Mikhailovsky Ballet at London Coliseum

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While the Bolshoi’s pulling the big prices with a summer of reruns, the Mikhailovsky’s actually making an attempt to give something back to London audiences by giving us two different, unique ballets: Cipollino, a children’s ballet, is a UK premiere of a ballet originally choreographed in 1973 (and based on an Italian children’s book); Laurencia is billed as a “world premiere” but is actually a revival of the 1939 original (meaning I can’t call it a world premiere by any stretch). (Details of both on the Mikhailovsky site).

Today was the opening day of Cipollino, which, per Wikipedia, is “a children’s tale about political oppression” but as done by fruits and vegetables. I was prepared to be highly amused despite further rather gloomy promises that “the main theme is the struggle of the underclass against the powerful;” it all seemed to promise a play that would hinge on the tomato, which could be either depending on your point of view, and with all of the trouble caused by a little green onion-boy (the “Cipollino” of the title). Glorious revolution ho!

Sadly our day got off to a dreary start with an extremely long plea for donations for a children’s cancer care charity, which, no matter how worthy, couldn’t help but bring the mood down with its evocation of a room full of people many of whom would be unpleasantly and too soon dead. (Sorry, Ms. Narrator, but 1/4 of the room WAS children, you must not tarry in the maudlin lest you lose the momentum.) However, when the curtain opened and the cheery painted drop of 70s psychedelic Russian folk kitsch appeared, all was forgotten. We were introduced to the lead characters: Cipollino, the little green onion boy (Alexey Kuznetsov, laboring under the most unattractive wig this side of Little Lord Fauntleroy and making it even worse with his terrifying grin) and his family; his girlfriend Radish (Sabina Yapparova) and her family; the various proletariat members of vegetable town (Mr. Pear, a violinist, Master Grape, the cobbler, and “old Mr. Pumpkin,” who is apparently 1) old and 2) homeless). Then it was the key members of the oppressive fruit caste: Signor Tomato (big handlebar mustache and quite a bumbling policeman look to him – will credit when I get the cast sheet) and Prince Lemon (hysterically over the top foppish, again can’t credit at present).

Then the ballet itself starts. We have our happy little vegetables in their baskets and dancing in their village. They are, thank God, dressed in charming balletic peasant clothes rather than in eyeball-burning, painfully obvious actual vegetable costumes (no Tales of Beatrix Potter here). Cipollino’s status is designated merely by a green sprout coming from the top of his head; everyone else just goes for the right colors for their role (or maybe a tasteful print of grapes or flowers on their clothes), generally speaking. It’s all set against a backdrop that seems to be vaguely Italian town, which, you know, is fine.

Our villains appear. Signor Tomato is a blustery, angry fellow with a black admiral’s hat on and a large mustache; he comes off like a vicious Major General. He’s accompanied by a group of four men whom I could only think of as elves escaped from Santa Land. This caused me considerable mental distress as I quickly saw the elves “kettling” the happy villagers for the crime of stepping on Prince Lemon’s toe; later I saw the same elves engaging in a “little bit of the old ultra-violence” with the same Prince Lemon. I kept expecting them to hand out presents or make toys; the red and green suits simply couldn’t read any other way. Elf prison guards, what has the world come to?

Prince Lemon has a much bigger contingent of accompanying toadies, all solidly dressed per “children’s ballet” standards of brights, striped, and polka dots. My favorite were the yellow guards, four young women in Tour De France winner’s gear of bright yellow with black trim, nicely accented by bicorn hats and glossy black toe shoes. They got some good choreography (footwork-wise) which made them even more fun to watch. My companion and I both got a kick out of the ballet’s heavy-handed depiction of the flattery exacted by Prince Lemon.

As for the rest of the actual so-called plot, I’ve dropped the synopsis below. In short, Cipollino must both rescue his father from his prison at Prince Lemon’s castle and successfully rebel against the fruit aristocracy so that poor Mr. Pumpkin can have a place to live and the vegetables can live in peace. This requires a long visit to the castle, giving us an opportunity to introduce two secondary characters Count Cherry (Nikolay Korypaev) and Magnolia (Irina Kosheleva) who perform the cruelest trick of all: they steal all of the good dancing away from the lead vegetables.

So really: how about that dancing? Cipollino himself gets almost no exciting choreography, save for his acts 1 and 2 fights with Signor Tomato. Instead, as in all good Panto, the villains totally steal the show. With their incredible high kicks and leaps, Tomato and Lemon really made me want to see them set loose to show off their stuff, as they appeared to be great athletes with very good timing, as well as good actors. Really, the way their legs snapped up in the air about to their noses was quite remarkable. Perhaps they were supposed to be showy, but I couldn’t help but wonder: couldn’t Cipollino just get a little better stuff to dance, and maybe a different wig?

His girlfriend Radish was sprightly and fun, but her charms were washed away when Magnolia came onto the stage, seemingly from an entirely different ballet. She was light, she was airy, she pirouetted like a dream, she flirted and seduced and totally stole the second act. Her duet with Count Cherry was the best dancing of the ballet; second best was the immediately following trio in which Cipollino joins the mix and the two men kind of show off to her and take turns partnering her. If it hadn’t been for this bit, I think I would have just not believed Alexey Kuznetsov could really dance at all.

In short, although the choreography of this ballet (by Genrikh Mayorov) isn’t of the sort that’s going to be making its way into the gala repetoire any time soon, it was still enjoyable on a variety of levels and I consider it worth seeing, especially if the half-priced day of seat tickets are available from the TKTS booth (as they were today). I had a great time from my stalls seats and was pleased by the two hour start-to-finish (with interval) running time. If you are considering bringing children, I’d suggest seven to eleven as the right age range; don’t bring younger unless you’ve already got a ballet fan on your hands as I saw a few four or five year olds just looking too worn out to manage through the show. But do go; you may never have a chance to see this fun work again.

(This review is for a performance that took place at 2 PM on Saturday July 17th 2010. This show will be repeated on July 24th.)

Synopsis of Cipollino from Mikhailovsky site (for those who don’t have Flash):
Act I

A square in a fairytale town. It seems there are only vegetable baskets and fruit cases. But in fact those are big and small houses where fruits and vegetables live. And all the fruits and vegetables resemble people so much.
The family of the Radishes meet the family of the Onions. Mother Cipolla and father Cipollone are trying to cope with naughty Cipollino who is tired of nursing his little sister Cipolletta. Master Grape is mending shoes. Mister Pumpkin is looking for some bricks to build a house for himself. Professor Pear is playing the violin and all the citizens of the town are dancing. Suddenly Signor Tomato appears on the square and announces the visit of Prince Lemon who’d like to talk to his citizens. Prince Lemon has just issued a new law: the sunshine, the wind blow, and the rain must be paid for. Vegetables and fruits are indignant.
In the stampede Cipollino has inadvertently stepped on Lemon’s foot. The guards are outraged: Prince Lemon has been insulted. The ‘rebel’ must be punished. But Cipollino has vanished and the guards arrest his father, the old Cipollone.
The Onions are grieving. But other families have problems too. Mister Pumpkin on his own cannot build a house. All the citizens united by Cipollino are helping him. No sooner than the house has been built, Signor Tomato appears. He’s nearly bursting with anger: the Pumpkin’s house has been built on the land of Countesses Cherries. It’s private property and nobody can use it. The Guard of Prince Lemon destroy the house. The poor old Pumpkin is desperate. Cipollino sets for revenge.

Act II

Cipollino and his friend little Radish are going to the palace to find the place where old Cipollone is kept. On the way they meet young Count Cherry who is very lonely in the palace. Cipollino, Radish, and Cherry make friends. Trying to find the imprisoned Cipollone they are nearly caught by Signor Tomato but manage to escape. The Countesses Cherries are throwing a feast in honour of Prince Lemon. While everybody is busy dancing the friends manage to set Cipollone free.
Lemon’s Guard and the police are looking for the runaways. Cipollino hides his father and Radish but gets arrested.
In the gardens of the palace Count Cherry meet Magnolia. Together they find Cipollino incarcerated. Magnolia with her fragrance sends the guards to sleep; Count Cherry ties them up and sets Cipollino free.
Prince Lemon comes to the prison to punish the ‘rebel’ but finds only the guards tied up.
The enraged Prince orders to fire the cannon into the townsfolk but Cipollino and his friends manage to push the Prince into the cannon. When the smoke rolls away there is no Prince Lemon, no cannon, and no guards. From now on everybody will happily live in the fairytale town. There will be a new town under the clear blue sky — a town of friends!

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