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Nixon puts different spin on classic Cinderella

There are some stories we never get tired of:

STARS:  Northern Ballet's Isaac Lee-Baker as The Prince and Michela Paolacci as Cinderella.
STARS: Northern Ballet's Isaac Lee-Baker as The Prince and Michela Paolacci as Cinderella.

the rags-to-riches fairytale Cinderella is one of them. It is the box-office sweetheart at panto-time while over the years playwrights and film-makers have used it in various guises, as have composers and choreographers. A recent addition to their number is David Nixon, the artistic director of the Leeds-based Northern Ballet and thanks to a slow boat from China - still ferrying the paraphernalia of the company's Midsummer Night's Dream home from a hugely successful tour - Edinburgh audiences will instead see his recently premiered Cinderella at the end of this week.

Don't, however, start humming bits of the Prokofiev score in anticipation. Nixon's Cinderella dances to a different tune, a totally original score commissioned from Philip Feeney.

"Ours is a different scenario," explains Nixon. "It just wouldn't work with Prokofiev's music." But then he comes clean. While he's always liked the Cinderella story, he has never liked the Prokofiev score. "Even when I danced it, I used to wonder 'why are there seasons in this story?' - it felt like that should be another ballet, not Cinderella. And of course there are beautiful things in the score, because Prokofiev is a truly great composer. But Act III? All those repetitions as the Prince takes the shoe round the world?"

He breaks into a few bars of rum-ti-tum-ing to prove his point before adding: "In the version I danced in, they did a million coupé jetés to that music and arrived with that shoe in China, and then another million coupé jetés as they headed off and arrived elsewhere.

"Nightly I would promise myself that if I ever made my own version of Cinderella, I would never, ever, use that music. So - no Prokofiev for us!"

There's a lot of underlying humour in his voice as he delivers this mini-critique of a score that has been employed by countless other choreographers since it was composed in the 1940s.

But there's a serious side to his breaking away from the supposed norm.

In some ways, it echoes what the late Peter Darrell did, when he created a Cinderella to an exquisite compilation of Rossini music, centred on his opera La Cenerentola. This is about repertoire as company identity. Like Scottish Ballet then and now, Nixon's company has no intention of coming across as a cut-down version of the Royal Ballet. Even if the names of classic ballets stay the same, the interpretation and choreography will be dramatically different and attuned to modern audiences with an appetite for believable story-telling.

So, apart from the ballet unfolding in a wintry Imperial Russia - with a colourful winter fair and ice-skating scenes setting technical challenges for the dancers - what else has he changed? His list is intriguing.

"In our Cinderella, we don't have that whole 'searching with the shoe' business," he says. "We don't have the clock ticking towards midnight. We don't have a Fairy Godmother - we have a mysterious magician who is like her dead father, but it won't spoil the story if you don't catch that. Her step-sisters aren't ugly, except in the way they behave. And her step-mother isn't some funny-crazy woman - that's for pantomimes, if at all. She is, however, ice-cold by nature and very, very controlling - of herself, as well as others. She holds in all the rage she feels at life, and at Cinderella. She blames her for the death of her father, and though she never actually hits her, you feel there's always a threat hanging there. I think that kind of emotional subtext is real, and understandable even if you don't like the character."

Ah, but isn't this still a fairy-tale? Servant girl finds true love tra-la? Nixon has woven in a few twists there as well.

"I wanted us to get away from that hollow image of 'the perfect man' - so we see him letting her down, because she is a servant and beneath him. For her, that's it - she's out the door, determined to make a new life elsewhere. And suddenly we're thinking 'uh-oh...we've done it there - no happy ending with the Prince. But don't worry. We fixed it. Though are they happy ever after? Who knows? But that's another ballet, wouldn't you say?"

Northern Ballet perform Cinderella at Edinburgh's Festival Theatre from Thursday to Saturday.

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