Everyone knows the story of Cinderella: the benevolent fairy godmother, the spiteful stepsisters, the dashing prince charming, and, of course, those sparkling glass slippers. Former Pacific Northwest Ballet Artistic Director Kent Stowell’s version of the beloved fairy tale, which opened PNB’s 40th season this Friday, September 21, offers all the familiar charms, with a few additions, some of which are more effective than others. Lavishly costumed by the late designer Martin Pakledinaz, and set to Sergei Prokofiev’s soaring and dramatic score, the ballet has a marvelous sense of grandeur. In Stowell’s production, he balances this opulence and the dreamy fairytale aspect of the story with additions meant to give the ballet more “emotional cohesiveness.” A reverie where Cinderella fondly recalls her mother is effective but the “Theater of Marvels,” which reiterates the good and evil dichotomy in the ballet through a ghoulishly clad Evil Sprite and masked Good Fairy, seems redundant. The story is inherently idealistic, with very little weight in the real world, so trying to ground and moralize it takes away from its essential fairytale quality, which is what makes it work in the first place.
The choreography itself is heavy on lush duets and solos that chart Cinderella’s journey, making it a true ballerina’s ballet. Carla Körbes danced the title role on opening night with sublime radiance, carrying the whole ballet with her performance. Not only was she technical perfection, but her acting was similarly superb, and she integrated the two skills seamlessly. As romanticized as the story may be, Körbes imbued every gesture with a sense of realism; her giggles were genuine, her disappointment was fraught, and her love was tender. As her prince, Karel Cruz danced with the appropriate bravado through lovely leaps if not slightly underwhelming turns. His princely smile seemed a bit fickle, however, only flashing after difficult sequences (of which there were several). Cruz performs like he’s dancing in a ballet, breaking character for the pageantry of bowing and accepting applause, but Körbes performs like she’s living in the world she creates on stage. It’s not that she lacks showmanship, it’s just that it’s innate, never put-on.
Also notable was the bright regality of Carrie Imler’s Fairy Godmother, and the delightfully playful Jonathan Porretta as the jester. Porretta’s spectacular jumps and beaming smile always elicit cheers, and he was in top form on opening night. Representing the Four Seasons, Brittany Reid seemed a bit labored throughout her Summer variation, but Elizabeth Murphy impressed with sparkly pertness as Spring, Kylee Kitchens brought a befitting clarity to Winter’s variation, and Sarah Ricard Orza’s precision worked smoothly through Fall’s tricky musicality.
The stepsisters, played on opening night by Jessika Anspach and PNB guest artist Marisa Albee (who originated the role in 1994), were both gaudy and gawky. Unfortunately, their slap-stick humor seemed to fall a bit short; the audience has seen this schtick before and wasn’t as quick to laugh at each goofy antic. It’s difficult to strike the right balance with slap-stick comedy as it requires a willingness to look completely ridiculous, something Anspach hasn’t quite yet developed. Her extension still soared, only with flexed feet, and her smile felt like a cheesy after-effect. Laura Gilbreath, however, gave a convincingly haughty and disdainful turn as the Stepmother. The over-the-top humor was used more effectively in Act II by the Harlequin (Jerome Tisserand) and Columbine (Ricard Orza) in the “Theatre of Marvels.” Here, the play-acting was integrated into the choreography and the two embodied a slinky playfulness as they cocked their heads and shrugged their shoulders.
Though the costumes were exquisite in their every sparkly detail, they often seemed to overpower, if not distract from the dancing. The brilliant vermillion of the courtiers in Act II made for a strikingly dramatic effect, but left the eyes feeling tired after watching so many whirling eddies of red. More pleasant were the shimmery water-color blues of the Fairy Godmother’s attendants. They appeared straight out of a Monet painting as they streamed across the stage, but the calf-length skirts seemed to weigh the dancers down. Nevertheless, the corps executed the intricate floor patterns with precise straight lines, and a lulling fluidity.
The fleet of young children also added a quaint charm to the production. In Cinderella theyportrayed a bouncing pumpkin patch, an ominous clock, and a flock of shimmery bugs. Opening night also began with a special performance of the delightful romp, Circus Polka, where pastel-clad young charges galloped under the direction of Ringmaster, the preeminent ballerina Patricia Barker in her first return to the PNB stage since her retirement in 2007. When they scampered into their final pose to create a giant number 40, it seemed to establish that from the children all the way to the highest ranks of the company, the entire establishment of PNB continues to thrive as it embarks on its 40th season.
Cinderella continues through September 30, 2012. For more information and to purchase tickets, see http://www.pnb.org/