OBT slips on the slipper

Ben Stevenson's romantic version of "Cinderella" puts a fairy-tale spin on the ballet company's season

“Outside girl, go here! Cabriole girl, here’s what I want you to do! Inside girl, where are you?”

Janie Parker, a lithe woman wearing shiny powder-blue tights with a loose black tee-shirt  over them, and pink ballet slippers on her feet, doesn’t look like the prima ballerina of Houston Ballet, which she was when Trey McIntyre was a member of the corps.  Nor does she look like  an army drill sergeant, but she certainly sounds like one.

Xuan Cheng in rehearsal as Cinderella. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Xuan Cheng in rehearsal as Cinderella. Photo: Blaine Truitt Covert

Last Wednesday afternoon, in the main studio at Oregon Ballet Theatre, Parker was in the final stages of setting the Act III ballroom waltz in Ben Stevenson’s version of Cinderella.  They were 10 days away from opening night at the Keller Auditorium on Saturday, Feb. 28.  All six performances (it’s a two-weekend run) will be accompanied by live orchestra, led by Niel DePonte, who elsewhere in the building was watching video, with Sergei Prokofiev’s difficult score in hand.

Small wonder Cinderella’s stepsisters and stepmother require a dance master before attending the Prince’s ball. In Stevenson’s choreography for the famous waltz – which is introduced at the end of Act I, when Cinderella is en route to the ball, then reprised in the ballroom scene – the steps are as complex and detailed as the music, with seemingly a slightly different step for every note.

This, along with Stevenson’s intensely romantic point of view, leavened in this work by the English music-hall antics of Cinderella’s en travestie stepsisters (think Robin Williams as Mrs. Doubtfire), makes the ballet extremely challenging for the dancers, most of whom are accustomed to a “cooler” approach to the art of the ballet. That, however, is one of the  reasons  company artistic director Kevin Irving chose Stevenson’s rendition of a ballet that has hundreds of different versions. “It challenges the dancers with new skills,” he told me. He also likes “the romantic approach, choreographically and philosophically,” and cited “virtues over looks and goodness rewarded” as themes of the ballet. And he wanted to add a new evening-length ballet to OBT’s repertoire in the company’s 25th anniversary season.

Stevenson, who is British by birth, and British-trained, danced with the London Festival Ballet and The Royal Ballet before coming to this country , where in 1970 he made Cinderella for the National Ballet of Washington. A year later he was co-artistic director with his compatriot, Frederic Franklin, and choreographed a new Sleeping Beauty for the opening of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. The National Ballet was short-lived (Nancy Matschek, who established the even shorter-lived dance major at Portland State, danced with it.)  Stevenson has spent the bulk of his career in Texas, however, first putting Houston Ballet on the national and international maps and now directing Texas Ballet Theatre, near Dallas. That company built the sets and costumes on loan for the Portland run.

In the three quarters of a century since Prokofiev began composing the score for a Soviet production of this most universal of fairy tales, there have been countless choreographic takes on the rags to riches story, which exists in some form all over the world. I’ve seen Sir Frederick Ashton’s for the then Sadler’s Wells Ballet, in New York when they made their first American tour in 1949, with the stunning Moira Shearer in the title role. Most recently, a couple of years ago, I saw Cincinnati Ballet artistic director Victoria Morgan’s version performed by Kansas City Ballet. Kent Stowell’s is in the repertoire of Pacific Northwest Ballet; Eugene Ballet’s artistic director Toni Pimble has one that is quite close to Ashton’s (though she says she’s never seen it); Pimble’s was last seen in Portland in 1988, when OBT forerunner Ballet Oregon had several collaborative seasons with  her company.

There are many, many roles for dancers in Cinderella, but in Stevenson’s version, none for little kids, who in some productions appear gratuitously in Cinderella’s kitchen and elsewhere. However, upper division students from OBT’s School are incorporated into the ballroom scene, and they were definitely learning a lot when I watched rehearsal.  All casting is subject to change, but Xuan Cheng, Ansa Deguchi and Eva Burton are slated to dance Cinderella, with Chauncey Parsons, Brian Simcoe and Colby Parsons as the Prince. Like most of the choreography in this ballet, the partnering is intricate and dramatic.

Brett Bauer, both Parsons brothers, Michael Linsmeier, Ye Li, Adam Hartley and Thomas Baker have been cast in the extremely challenging role of the Step Sisters; they will be cavorting a fine line between slapstick and burlesque, and they will have to do it on the music. Ballet Master Lisa Kipp has been cast as Cinderella’s Stepmother; Baker in the small but important role of the dancing master.

All Cinderellas include a number of bravura turns.  Stevenson’s has a Jester. Li, Avery Reiners and Linsmeier will get a chance to show off their athletic, Soviet-style technique in this role in Act III.  For the women, there are the divertissements for the fairies; Autumn will be danced by Candace Bouchard, who will also exercise her dramatic skills as Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother; Summer by the beautiful Martina Chavez.

Cinderella in some respects is a better “first ballet” for children than The Nutcracker. Kids know the story well; it’s a “happily ever after” ballet; and there is a great deal of action: it moves very fast in Stevenson’s version.  Grown-ups will enjoy those qualities, too, as well as the melding of difficult music with demanding choreography, which when I watched rehearsal,  OBT’s dancers were well on the way to perfecting.

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Cinderella runs for six performances, Feb. 28-March 7, at Keller Auditorium, 222 S.W Clay St. Ticket and casting information here.

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