Interview: Marcel Meyer talks about playing Daffodil, one of the loathsomely lovable Ugly Sisters in Cape Town City Ballet’s 2023 production of Veronica Paeper’s Cinderella

Cape Town City Ballet’s production of Veronica Paeper’s Cinderella

When and where:  Artscape, February 4 to 19, 2023
Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra and guest artists: Selected performances
Bookings: Artscape Dial-A-Seat 021 421 7695 or Computicket
Tickets: R 175-R750
Age advisory: No under 5s    
Info regarding schedule of performances, guest artists:

The Ugly Sisters is a duo which is integral to the comedy and pathos of the fairytale, Cinderella. Despite doing their best to instil Imposter Syndrome in Cinderella, they fail and yet we have empathy for their insecurities, fear of losing their power and for their need to kow-tow to standards of beauty. They Gaslight poor Cinderella but she breaks free and in the end, there is resolution for all. [Gaslighting is psychological manipulation, to plant self-doubt, regarding self-esteem. It is a power thing- making someone feel diminished. Interestingly, the term originated from the early 1960s in psychology but has taken on a major significance in recent years, but not everyone is familiar with the term, so I include this little explanation.] In Cape Town City Ballet’s highly anticipated February 2023 production of Veronica Paeper’s Cinderella, the Ugly Sisters are Daffodil and Violet. Daffodil (danced by Marcel Meyer) and Violet (Mervyn Williams) are “loathsomely lovable as Joanna Lumley and Jennifer Saunders were as Eddie and Patsy in the classic British comedy series, Absolutely Fabulous”, quips Marcel Meyer. He provides insights into playing, Daffodil – “the domineering sibling” and he enthuses how in 2023, Cinderella “is the perfect story to lift our communal spirits” after the devastation and loss” of the Covid pandemic. Read on for more:

Loathsomely lovable- side-splitting comedy, breath-taking romance, glamour and drama

How are the Ugly Sisters positioned in this production? Comedic?

Marcel Meyer: I play Daffodil, the deliciously domineering sibling, to Mervyn Williams’ Violet, the coyer and more reserved of the two sisters. In this production the Ugly Stepsisters are definitely positioned for maximum comedic effect. They are your classic comedy double-act. Violet and Daffodil are as loathsomely lovable as Joanna Lumley and Jennifer Saunders were as Eddie and Patsy in the classic British comedy series Absolutely Fabulous. Using the Ugly Stepsisters as a comedy double act is part of Veronica Paeper’s brilliance in creating narrative ballets. She knows exactly how to blend storytelling, humour, pathos with breath-taking choreography and pure dance and of all her many ballets I’ll venture that Cinderella is one of her greatest and certainly most popular creations for exactly this reason. Cinderella is the perfect synthesis of a strong narrative plot, side-splitting comedy, breath-taking romance, glamour, and drama, all danced to one of the greatest ballet scores ever composed.

Designing and imaging Cinderella

This production is performed to music by Sergei Prokofiev, with libretto by the Brothers Grimm, 1812.  Insights into the design and vibe of this production?

Marcel Meyer: Veronica’s long-standing collaborative partner Peter Cazalet created the sumptuous sets and costumes for this production. Cinderella is like a story book come to life. Violet and Daffodil are decked out in over-the-top costumes and wigs in their respective colour schemes: Violet in shades of pink and Daffodil in greens, black and pale yellows. The ballroom sequence is a shimmering fantasy in rich golden brocades and the fairy godmother and her attendant seasonal fairies [Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter] are a shimmering sight to behold in their sumptuous, sparkling tutus. Cinderella also has a magical transformation from her drab, tattered scullery-maid costume into a glittering classical tutu replete with a beautiful tiara and beaded point shoes standing in for the famous glass slippers.

Regarding the personality of the Ugly Sisters in this production: Even though the sisters act as comic relief, their characters should be rooted in an absolute truth. For me Daffodil’s need to dominate and bully stems from a deeply rooted in insecurity. Violet and Daffodil have been pressurised by their mother -who doesn’t appear as a character in the ballet]-and by the social expectations of the era to conform to an idea of femininity that neither of them can live up to, this frustration at falling short of other people’s expectations then manifests itself in bullying and bossing others to compensate for a very fragile and frightened little ego hiding behind the confident façade.

Dancing into character roles- Marcel Meyer and Mervyn Williams

Mervyn Williams trained as a ballet dancer. How did your gigs come about with Cape Town City Ballet? How did you as theatre performer, became a guest ballet dancer? When was the first time that you danced with the company?

Marcel Meyer: Correct Mervyn is a trained ballet dancer who has had a long and distinguished career with CAPAB Ballet that later transformed into the current Cape Town City Ballet. My first production as guest artist for Cape Town City Ballet was playing Scrooge in Veronica Paeper’s wonderful ballet adaptation of Charles Dickens’ perennial festive favourite A Christmas Carol in 2019, presented at the Playhouse in Durban and at Artscape. During the height of the Covid lockdowns I joined the company for a programme titled Moon Behind The Clouds which was a series of short ballets created by various South African choreographers on the dancers of CTCB during lock-down. This time I was in more familiar territory as an actor, narrating selections from Max Ehrman’s moving Desiderata as linking text between the ballets. Moon Behind the Clouds was presented on a Double Bill with Balanchine’s haunting Serenade in Cape Town and Durban to socially distanced audiences. At the end of 2021. I joined the company as Scrooge for a return season of A Christmas Carol at Artscape, and 2022 saw me guest in Giselle [as the Duke], Romeo and Juliet [as Lord Capulet] and most recently as Drosselmeyer in The Nutcracker over the Festive Season.

Movement and dance craft

Has dance/ballet been part of your training in the past?

Marcel Meyer: I did my initial training in dramatic art at Pro Arte, The Pretoria High School for Art, Ballet, Music, and Drama. I was a student in the drama department, but my interest has always been in the broader performing arts, and I quickly made friends in the ballet and music departments. This afforded me the opportunity to accompany my ballet and music friends on their field trips to the State Theatre to see those magnificent PACT Ballet and PACT Opera productions. When we weren’t too busy with productions and projects in the drama department I would try and do the occasional ballet class in the afternoons. After I matriculated from Pro Arte, I furthered my studies in Musical Theatre at Pretoria Technicon. At Tech, dance [tap, ballet, jazz] was a major part of the syllabus, alongside acting and singing. The Musical Theatre course was presented by the Pretoria Technicon Dance Department and in my final year I played the part of Doctor Coppelius in the Dance Departments production of Coppelia staged by the late, great Viki Karras and the inimitable Ken Yeatman.

Storytelling through dance

You recently performed in CTCB’s The Nutcracker as Drosselmeyer. I was amazed at the dance and movement from you.  In A Christmas Carol – The Story of Scrooge-  there was limited dance from you – but as Drosselmeyer- there was full on dance and movement – choreographed dance. Performing with Mervyn – a trained ballet dancer – I would imagine that choreographically- it is complex?

Marcel Meyer: Yes, Cinderella is choreographically by far the most complex role I have done for the company. CTCB have sneakily incrementality increased the amount of dance and choreography with each role and now I’m waltzing, mazurka-ing and minuet-ing away to Prokofiev’s sublime score in this one! But Mervyn and everyone in the company have been amazingly supportive, patient and encouraging during the initial process of learning the choreography. Also, Veronica Paeper is a master storyteller in dance and that makes the world of difference because each gesture and movement and step is so intrinsically linked to the character and the story that it always makes dramatic sense – so it’s a great honour to have a legend like her working with us on one of her all-time balletic masterpieces.

For the love of ballet

Ballet is very different to your other work – dramas/plays/musicals – you are truly a Renaissance artist. You appear to love ballet. That came across in The Nutcracker. Insights into working with CTCB and working on ballets geared for children?

Marcel Meyer:  I love ballet very much. I’ve always been an avid balletomane and I have the greatest respect for the unwavering discipline and dedication that ballet dancers daily bring to their craft – It’s humbling and inspiring to work with the company and it has made me grow as an actor. An actor’s principal means of communication, especially in classical theatre, is his voice and the incredible words of master playwrights, to suddenly have your main tool removed in ballet – has afforded me the opportunity to heighten my other senses as a performer, to learn to ‘listen’ with my eyes and to viscerally respond with every fibre of my being.

Regarding working on ballets geared toward children – that is the most important and satisfying part of why we do what we do – it can change someone’s life. I remember as a young child being taken to see PACT Ballet’s wonderful production of Frederick Ashton’s pastoral masterpiece La Fille Mal Gardee and being completely transported to another world in a way that nothing else had done before – my life was changed by that experience and each time I am privileged enough to do work for a young audience I give it my all – because you never know who is sitting in the audience – waiting to have their young life changed in that same magical way. It’s a great honour, responsibility, and a privilege.

Cinderella –overcoming obstacles

Anything else to add about Cinderella as a story and the ballet, now for 2023 audiences?

Marcel Meyer:  In 1940 after the success of Romeo & Juliet, the Kirov Theatre in St Petersburg commissioned a new three act ballet score from Prokofiev. He decided the much-loved fairy tale Cinderella would be the perfect story for this new ballet.  Prokofiev famously stated: “What I wanted to express above all in the music for Cinderella was the poetic love of Cinderella and the Prince, the birth and flowering of that love, the obstacles in its path, and finally the dream fulfilled.” But Russia’s involvement in World War II halted the ballet’s production. Prokofiev had to wait until the end of the war to finally see the ballet premiere at the Bolshoi in Moscow in 1945. Meanwhile in England legendary British choreographer, Sir Frederick Ashton, was searching for a subject for his first full length ballet, he decided on Cinderella danced to Prokofiev’s score. In the tradition of British Christmas Pantomime Ashton decided to have the Ugly Sisters danced by male dancers en travesti – and he, along-side his close friend and classical actor Robert Helpmann danced the Ugly Sisters in Ashton’s original 1948 production at the Royal Opera House. Many wartime restrictions had been lifted and this allowed Ashton to create a sumptuous fairy-tale ballet. Both Prokofiev and Ashton found the Cinderella narrative a vital one in a world that had been ravaged by half a decade of brutal conflict. A story of goodness being triumphant resonated deeply in a post war world. Likewise for us in 2023 Cinderella is the perfect story to lift our communal spirits after the devastation and loss that the Covid-19 Pandemic brought. As Alastair Macaulay so elegantly stated: “Cinderella is a story of hope fulfilled, a comedy of contrasting characters, and a classical ballet dense with sensuous movement.” What more could anyone hope for?

Renaissance creative: Cape Town theatre maker Marcel Meyer is an accomplished actor, writer, designer, librettist (he recently co-created the new musical, Star+Crosssed) and producer. He runs the theatre production company, Abrahamse & Meyer Productions with Fred Abrahamse. And Meyer is a fantastic dancer. As evidenced from his roles with Cape Town City Ballet, he has segued into ballet dancing and is delivering knockout performances. See him in CTCB’s 2023 production of Veronica Paeper’s Cinderella, as Daffodil, one of the Ugly Sisters. Book here:omputicket

✳ Featured image: Gia Lipschitz  and Marcel Meyer in Cape Town City Ballet’s The Nutcracker [2022]. Photo:Helena Fagan.

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