Photo by Michael Le Poer Trench

Cinderella, at the story's end, is indeed ready for a happy marriage. But does she love the prince? Nowhere does the story say so.

–Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment


AS THE UNKNOWN SHORE OF A NEW CENTURY APPEARS on the horizon, we in the West instinctively look back over our shoulders to the certitude of World War II, a time when one could say, “I don't know much about politics, but I recognize pure evil when I see it.” And so it is with Matthew Bourne's staging of Cinderella, which follows on the Capezio'd heels of his wildly successful Swan Lake. In 1997, Bourne's London-based dance company, Adventures in Motion Pictures, brought Tchaikovsky's bombastic score to the Ahmanson and molded it into an ambiguous, gender-warped meditation on the nature of love. Now the choreographer-director and his colleagues return, having harnessed Prokofiev's more sublime score to a historical period of moral clarity and literal bombast — London during the Blitz. Their U.S. premiere is a stunning visual triumph that nonetheless leaves us feeling a little empty, if not cold.

The “updating” of Cinderella to World War II is an inspired choice by Bourne, and AMP's designers respond with awesome firepower. Lez Brotherston has outdone even his splendid Swan Lake design work, re-creating a London that has either been pulverized and exsanguinated by war, or flushed pink by champagne and sex. There are even judiciously chosen moments of Lloyd Webberesque spectacle, as when an air-raid bomb demolishes the roof of a nightclub — moments fortified by Jon Gottlieb and Philip G. Allen's thunderous sound design and Rick Fisher's nightmarish lighting plot. These, taken with Brotherston's period costumes, present a story whose moral contours are revealed not so much by painterly brush strokes as by the stark angles of a linocut.

So why does this evening move us to only polite applause and not the deafening ovation accorded Swan Lake? The production, after all, pairs the dynamic Adam Cooper (the memorable alpha swan in Swan Lake) with his fiancée, the Royal Ballet Company's Sarah Wildor; he plays a battle-bandaged RAF-pilot “prince” who rescues her Cinderella from a brood of cruel, lazy step-siblings ruled by an even crueler and lazier matriarch (Isabel Mortimer) who drinks, flirts and — oh, God — smokes cigarettes. Cinderella, a mousy, bespectacled girl, does have a dozy old-soldier father (Barry Atkinson), but he won't say much about anything from the seat of his wheelchair. (Note: The cast's leads alternate during the run.)

Perhaps Cinderella's problems start right here: Two wounded males and a frowzy heroine are inevitably upstaged by Stepmommie Dearest, who, despite her age, still exudes a varicosed randiness whenever her wandering corneas lock onto man meat. No wonder Cinderella's only guardian angel is just that — an angel who descends from heaven to right all the wrongs in her life. Dressed in an iridescent white suit, this Angel (Will Kemp) gives Cinderella a coveted invitation to a posh dance club called the Café de Paris. Before she arrives, however, a German bomb flattens Cinderella's street and sends her into a dream tryst with the Pilot, whom she leaves asleep in his bed before the stroke of midnight, when she returns to her battered body, which is ambulanced off to a hospital. While she recuperates, the Pilot scours London to find his lover, clutching the glittering slipper she has left behind. Before long, however, the two are reunited in the same hospital, stepmom is taken away and everyone else boards a train for the eventual boredom of peacetime prosperity.

We watch as our couple, now both wearing glasses, merge into a life without uniforms and danger. But they were frankly already too bland to hold our attention — while Cooper is easily identifiable when he's wearing his RAF leather jacket, he tends to get lost in a crowd of uniformed dancers while attired in his dress blues. And Wildor's schoolmarmish drabness is no match for Cinderella's gaudy Andrews Stepsisters' look. Worse, far too many unanswered plot and motivation questions ricochet about during the night. Even allowing for some predictable confusion about what's exactly going on at the Café de Paris and at the hospital, we're not even really sure about the source of the evil in Cinderella's life — the evil which is, after all, the only reason she is Cinderella. How did the wicked stepmother (a personification of the times?) get her hooks into Cinderella's father? In one scene she is associated with the death of Cinderella's mother, but this moment is never repeated or explained, and when she attacks her stepdaughter in the hospital, we don't know why she's strangling her, and we certainly aren't sure for what purpose she's being taken away, or even for how long. And why do her own children, including her two slatternly daughters, get off scot-free? At least in the Grimms' fairy tale, they have their eyeballs plucked out by doves at Cinderella's wedding.

OF COURSE, I'M DESCRIBING CINDERELLA ON ITS own dramatic terms, though even to my untutored eye, Bourne's choreography didn't seem all that innovative; you seldom feel the ensemble is truly unleashed on the Ahmanson's large stage, whose staircase stands as the sole challenge to the dancers' mostly horizontal movements. Overall, though, Bourne does a good job of keeping attention focused on the two lovers whenever they dance together; this may sound like a self-evident requirement, but in a 28-member ensemble this isn't always easy. And, to be fair, in this adaptation Bourne must manufacture entire scenes out of thin air to match Prokofiev's music, which, while written over the span of WWII, isn't going to automatically suggest imagery that's not in the traditional choreographies. It becomes most problematic during the Embankment scene, where the Pilot meanders through a subterranean jungle of thugs and whores of both genders as he caresses the slipper. It wouldn't have been so jarring had it lasted for a few minutes, but after an entire movement you begin asking what does any of this have to do with either the story or the music of Cinderella? And why would he even presume to look for her in this leprous environment?

Again, Swan Lake didn't pose these kind of obstacles, because it had a ready-made narrative structure that could be tweaked merely by changing the costuming. Giving that production a 1950s look and tossing in a few references to the Windsors was a relatively easy thing to pull off. But Bourne's World War II concept is so radical that even he would have had a difficult time fitting his swans into RAF uniforms and selling it to the audience had Swan Lake been set in the same time period.

Naturally, in a wordless ballet everything must be left unsaid, and the audience is forced to connect many of the narrative dots. A key moment of this child's tale — left out of Bourne's version — comes when the prince goes about the kingdom trying to find the owner of the glass slipper; when he arrives at Cinderella's home, the two stepsisters mutilate their own feet in an attempt to fit themselves into the slipper — tricks that work, temporarily, until those damned doves rat them out. Without this scene, Bourne's updated fairy tale is ultimately hamstrung, in that it can never be faithful to the original. There can be no such surgical drama in Bourne's story, where the Pilot has no importance to the rest of Cinderella's family. And then again, there is the matter of justice. Bruno Bettelheim pointed out how unsatisfactory Charles Perrault's version of Cinderella is, since no one is punished and, in fact, the wicked stepsisters are rewarded by Cinderella, who marries them off to lords of the court. In tone and imagery, Bourne's Cinderella is more comfortable with Perrault than the Grimms, which only proves, perhaps, that even the cruelty of the 20th century is no match for the fairy tales on which we were raised.

CINDERELLA | Music by SERGEI PROKOFIEV | Directed and choreographed by MATTHEW BOURNE | At the AHMANSON THEATER, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown | Through May 23

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