The trauma of war spreads like spilled ink through Matthew Bourne’s dark but deeply interesting and affecting “Cinderella,” where fairy-tale characters have been replaced by the walking (and in some cases wheelchair-using) wounded.
Bourne’s wordless dance-theater production, now at the Kennedy Center, is set in the bomb-torn London of 1940, where not only is the skyline cockeyed and half-broken, but the people are, too. Instead of a prince, there’s an RAF pilot with a head injury; Cinderella’s father is partially paralyzed; her stepmother is an embittered drunk; and a few creepy stepbrothers prowl around with the chain-smoking stepsisters. The fairy godmother is AWOL.
Yet there’s an unmistakable sparkle to this gray-toned adaptation, a sense of real people given warm, human dimension. The tale’s moral and spiritual ideas feel vastly more powerful in a World War II setting grounded in historical events, where it’s important not only to be hard-working and resilient, but also to care for one another, to open one’s doors, physically and metaphorically, and to get through the hell together.
No wand-wielding wish-granter conveys this message of kindness; it drifts through the production organically, for instance, through archival newsreel footage at the outset (“Admit passersby” for they may need help, urges one placard). It also comes across in the natural qualities of Cinderella, portrayed on Wednesday by the generous dancer Ashley Shaw, who has a smooth, serene quality of movement and fills the stage with warmth. Her guardian angel nudges her gently in the right direction; he’s a svelte young man in a silver suit, danced with silky grace by Liam Mower. Yet his powers are great: In an extraordinary piece of choreography, he turns back time.
This is one of the show’s most magical, bittersweet moments: Instead of a royal ball, the glitzy soiree of Cinderella’s dreams takes place at the Cafe de Paris, a swish London nightclub with a tragic history — in 1941 it was hit by German bombs. The second act’s curtain parts on the gruesome aftermath, yet Mower’s angel whisks away the flames and whirls the strewn bodies back on their feet and into one another’s arms.
Watching the felled victims dance back to life took my breath away, as did Cinderella’s tender one-night stand a little later, justified by the world crashing down around the lovers’ ears. The nightclub and the city fall to pieces around them in a dramatic feat of stagecraft. Lez Brotherston designed the evocative war-era sets and costumes; Duncan McLean’s projections and Neil Austin’s lighting conjured infernos and smoke-filled skies. Paul Groothuis’s sound design includes whistling explosives and roaring aircraft; I was prepared with earplugs, as Bourne has an affinity for loudness that some may find uncomfortable. Amped though it is, the music is a highlight here; Bourne uses Prokofiev’s “Cinderella” ballet score with fine sensitivity to suit his unusual staging.
In fact, if you listen closely, a wartime rendering of the fairy tale is all but foretold in Prokofiev’s music. He composed it in 1944, in the shadow of Stalin, and it’s pierced with notes of anxiety, and glimpses of a tilted, dark and imperiled world.
Bourne’s “Cinderella” premiered in 1997, but more than 20 years later, his approach feels timeless. Or maybe it’s just well-timed, for a Brexit-torn Britain, an unsettled America and an icy Washington in the grips of a government shutdown, where a happy ending (yes, there is one) can’t come soon enough.
Matthew Bourne’s ‘Cinderella’ Through Sunday at the Kennedy Center Opera House. $29-$129. 202-467-4600. kennedy-center.org.