How much can you change “Cinderella” before it is no longer “Cinderella”? In the case of choreography maestro Matthew Bourne — who, it should be said, first unveiled his spin on the classic folk tale some 22 years ago — the music is most certainly “Cinderella” (Prokofiev’s 1945 score, to be exact), but the plot has become a muddle, so much so that it’s more distracting trying to untangle how Bourne’s revisionist ballet corresponds to any previous version of “Cinderella” you may know than it might’ve been had he scrapped the title and built his wartime narrative from scratch.
A year and a half after Bourne’s “The Red Shoes” played Los Angeles’ Ahmanson Theater, the Center Theatre Group welcomes his “Cinderella,” and while there’s no denying the spectacle, this is certainly the lesser of the two shows. Upon entering the theater, audiences are confronted with the image (printed on the screen that masks the stage) of an enormous blue slipper lying amid the rubble of the London Blitz, while sound effects of airplanes flying overhead fill the theater. As the show begins, a World War 2 newsreel further explains this radical re-location of the tale, while offering no clue as to what he has done with the characters.
The year is 1940, the place is London, and the scene appears to have been lifted from a black-and-white movie: There is Cinderella (Ashley Shaw), center-stage, all dressed in gray, and these two severe-yet-elegant monochrome ladies (Sophia Hurdley and Anjali Mehra) standing off to the side are presumably her stepsisters. The man in the wheelchair (Alan Vincent) must be her father — a curious addition, and doubly unexpected (but hardly unwelcome) to include a character with a disability in a ballet. But who are all these young men standing around? And why is that one with his hair parted down the middle (Dan Wright) trying to sniff Cinderella’s feet?
Already, Bourne has managed to confuse us, resurrecting Cinderella’s father (who will later be shot dead in what appears to be a dream sequence) and inventing three half-siblings to fill out the stage — or something. One of the beauties of most ballets is the way emotion and metaphor tend to take prominence over plot. Not so in Bourne’s oeuvre, where narrative can be so intricate as to be incomprehensible, as in this show. A tip to attendees: A detailed description of the bewildering “Cinderella” plot can be found on the New Directions dance company’s official site — although even that doesn’t quite explain the sinister third act, or why he reinvented the fairy godmother as a male angel (Liam Mower), whose limbs radiate out from his torso like the hands of a ticking clock.
Bourne’s penchant for storytelling tends to work better on a smaller scale, as when he creates specific situations for his performers to act out within a scene, rather than in reinventing the “Cinderella” legend as a whole. And while the choreography isn’t especially exciting — apart from a few inventive pas-de-deux combinations, as when Shaw partners with a rolling mannequin, or dancing with dad in the aforementioned wheelchair — to Bourne’s credit, he seldom uses his cast of 20 dancers as interchangeable pawns in some purely geometric, Busby Berkeley-like pattern. Rather, he treats them as individuals, ensuring that each has a specific character to play at all times — which means that if one were to fixate on one dancer for the entire show, or happen to focus on an individual at any point in a scene, it’s almost certain that he or she would be doing something interesting and in-character (such as the inclusion an unexpected gay subplot, when stepbrother Jackson Fisch finds comfort in the arms of a serviceman mid-show).
Surprisingly, in “Cinderella,” the show’s title character is seldom the most interesting person on stage — at least, not until her reinvention from bespectacled, moth-gray shrew to Hollywood-glamorous blonde in shimmering white gown and gloves for Act Two (all or most of which may be some kind of shell-shocked delusion, after she narrowly survives a bomb dropped in Act One). She’s easily upstaged at the outset by her stepmother (Madelaine Brennan), who isn’t presented as evil so much as egocentric — and who will serve as a weird sort of rival for the prince, reinvented here as an RAF pilot named Harry (Andrew Monaghan) who stumbles through their front door and into Cinderella’s arms after being shot down.
Bourne’s affection for Powell and Pressburger films — as demonstrated by his decision to adapt “The Red Shoes” — serves as a clue to where he found the inspiration for Harry: With his pencil moustache and bandaged head, the dashing figure suggests David Niven’s character in “A Matter of Life and Death.” But it doesn’t begin to explain why he would introduce Harry so early in the show, rather than letting Cinderella discover him at the Café de Paris, where she makes her enchanted debut. Doing it this way, there’s little reason for him to go searching for the owner of these slippers since he already knows where she lives, and even less explanation for his tumble into the underworld of prostitutes and thugs that comprises most of Act Three.
Cued by Prokofiev’s score — which was written a few years after Bourne’s “Cinderella” is set — he lets his imagination run wild, and while the results are never less than spectacular, they are frequently inexplicable, and often hard to follow. To quote Gloria Steinem, “If the shoe doesn’t fit, must we change the foot?”