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Having a Ball

Pacific Northwest Ballet's 'Cinderella'

by Dean Speer

September 21 and 22 (e), 2012 -- McCaw Hall, Seattle, Washington

When a former head of the University of Washington’s Professional Actors Training Program was asked what he thought and reported to us that he found Pacific Northwest Ballet’s production of “Cinderella” lovely but a bit dull, it got me thinking why.

With its gorgeous costume designs by Martin Pakledinaz – whose brilliant conception of having the Act II ballroom scene open with the dancing participants all wearing red [which brought gasps and applause at its 1994 debut and which still does so today] and sets equally matched by Tony Straiges, and with lighting by the non-pareil Randall G. Chiarelli, I think it’s simply that the dramatic action is attenuated and stretched over three acts and that there is not as much tension as there is, say in a tragedy like “Swan Lake."

It also may have been better for the Ugly Stepsisters to have been men in pantomime roles. I recall Stowell stating his reasons why he preferred women in the parts, as opposed to the English tradition, for example, in versions by Frederick Ashton and Ben Stevenson. Yet, the young girls --as overdressed and buffoon-like as they are made to be -- are too real. How many people and families have had to deal with teens just like this pair? Whiny, shallow, grasping, self-centered, silly twits. I think having men do the parts makes it less real and therefore funnier and an even greater contrast to our real heroine, Cinderella. Let’s face it, unless prosthetics/rubber masks are put on the ladies, they are not ugly, just poorly behaved whereas the guys, well, you get the picture... The Stepmother, while domineering, isn’t truly wicked so, really, it’s more a case of Cinderella being ignored by her annoying stepsisters and mistreated by the stepmother. That is until the Father finally has had enough by Act III and puts the three into their place.

This doesn’t make it any less compelling or enjoyable. This is one of choreographer Kent Stowell’s best blockbuster all-company story ballets that really helped put PNB on the map. It’s uncomplicated and the simple fairy tale is a catalyst for great dancing, deploying each level of PNB’s artistic depth – from students in the School to its most seasoned stars. Stowell uses the flashback technique to convey the back story of how Cinderella’s family was happy until the passing of her mother and her father’s remarriage. With roles from “bugs” to fairies to the Prince, “Cinderella” is replete with juicy characters and choreography and lots of great dancing.

Opening Night, Carla Körbes gave us one of the best renditions of the title character, showing great range and nuance, plus superb timing and musicality. She is one of those rare artists who could not be unmusical if she tried. Her lanky partner was the ever-earnest and charming Karel Cruz, whose every performance should not be missed.

At the Saturday evening performance, a surprise: instead of the leads listed in the program, we were treated to the lead cast of Kaori Nakamura and Jonathan Porretta. These two are at the top of their game and, paired, play off of one another, each challenging the other to be better than their best.

Laura Gilbreath was sharp and haughty as the Stepmother and it was fun to see the great difference between her as this character and as the Fairy Godmother the next evening. One of my favorite corps de ballet dancers, Brittany Reid assumed the Stepmother role Saturday night to great success.

The critical role of the Fairy Godmother was done first by Carrie Imler (terrific) and then by Gilbreath the following night.

Inserted into Act II as entertainment to the ball-goers, Stowell’s “Theatre of Marvels” culls musically primarily from “The Love for Three Oranges,” among other pieces. Its strong, recognizable strains are well-used choreographically for an Evil Sprite and his petite attendants, a Good Fairy plus a nod to the historic and deep Italian theatrical tradition of Harlequin and Columbine.

Sprite was shared respectively by long-legged Andrew Bartee and Eric Hipolito, Jr., Good Fairy by Carrie Imler and Laura Gilbreath, and Harlequin and Columbine by Jerome Tisserand/James Moore and Sarah Ricard Orza/Leta Biasucci.

In this production, the Fairy Godmother gets lots of dancing, including being the Good Fairy.

Friday night’s opening gala included the welcome return to the PNB stage of its former star, Patricia Barker as the Ringmaster in Jerome Robbins’ miniature bon-bon that features scads of well-trained and adorable PNB School students from various levels, “Circus Polka,” which concluded with them making a formation of the number 40 in honor of PNB’s anniversary.

Anticipation was high and applause broke loose as Barker made her big top entrance, cracking a whip and “marshalling” the prancing students through their steps and poses. Smiling, she looked great and seemed to genuinely be enjoying herself. Now the Artistic Director of Michigan's Grand Rapids Ballet, her era at PNB was a golden one and the applause was both a welcome and a tribute.

Next was a slide presentation with representative images in chronological order that paid homage to the many dancers and visionary leaders who built PNB into what it is today. Accompanied by the mighty PNB Orchestra, under the baton of Emil de Cou, the “Finale’ from Igor Stravinsky’s “The Firebird” was both moving and just the right piece for the occasion.

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