Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Madison Ballet's Cinderella Sparkles

Quirk, at the Palace Ball            © Kat Stiennon 2015
by Susan Kepecs
Madison Ballet’s Cinderella (at Overture Hall last weekend – I attended the evening show on Saturday, March 28) is one of those kid-friendly story ballets with an antique, if somewhat schizophrenic aesthetic.  The overarching look of this painterly, jewel-toned production – sets and costumes acquired from Texas Ballet Theater in 2005 – is Rococo, men in brocade, women in elaborate skirts puffed out at unnatural angles with paniers; the guests at the ball all sport high-piled wigs.  Yet smidgeons of Diaghilev’s Art Nouveau spirit sneak in. 
Like Madison Ballet’s Nutcracker, Cinderella’s choreography, also by artistic director W. Earle Smith, is very traditional, in the pure Balanchine tradition.  And much like Nut, Cinderella has lots of little kids in adorable costumes, plus an overabundance of ballroom party dancing.  It’s the kind of ballet at which you see little girls in the audience decked out in tiaras and fairy wings; it’s a staple in the company’s long-term rotation, especially for that reason.
A few too-long interludes could use some judicious editing.  At one point all the fairies in the forest bourée in place for what seems an eternity, repeating the same simple, flight-mimicking port de bras.   Cinderella, at the ball, inexplicably and in darkness, changes slowly back into her peasant dress, shielded from view by dark winged creatures.  And there’s lots of overblown character work here – the evil stepsisters (the very able ballerinas Rachelle Butler and Abigail Henninger) engage in the sort of slapstick that appeals to kids, though I’d prefer less of it.  Nevertheless, Smith’s choreography does a very good job of articulating ballet and theater.  In the opening scene Butler and Henninger taunt Cinderella, tossing a scrub bucket back and forth over her  head – toss, pas de chat, soutinue – with pitch-perfect musicality. The ballroom waltz is a bit long and schmaltzy, but it’s hard not to chuckle when those ridiculous Rococo wigs arc skyward atop the heads of the dancers, airborne in pas de chat.
But like all traditional story ballets, what Cinderella is really all about, when you strip away the fancy production, is the high-end dancing -- the pas de deux, the variations, the divertissements. The elegant, long-limbed Shannon Quirk, possessed of exquisite technique and abundant acting chops, was stunning in the principal role.  Playfulness and delight were palpable in her tender, heartfelt little pas de deux with the ashman, apprentice Andrew Erickson, whose growth as a dancer this year has been impressive.  Emerging from the hearth soft and shy as ashes, Erickson blossomed under Quirk’s gentle coaxing, finally bounding into exhuberant tours en l’air.  In her adagio pas de deux with the prince (Phillip Ollenburg) at the palace ball, Quirk was luxurious and floaty.  Dreaming of him back at the hearth she waltzed with her broom, light as a feather – until, realizing he was gone, her joy gave way to grief. 
Ollenburg, a tall, lanky dancer, achieved marvelously lofty leaps in the bravura variation that represents his journey around the world to find the foot that fit the glass slipper.  The maidens he met on that venture (Butler and Henninger) offered him an eye-popping, snaky, Manchurian divertissement that could have come straight from one of Diaghilev’s ballets – the immediate precursors of Balanchine’s neoclassical style.  
Fall fairy
© Kat Stiennon 2015
Fairy godmother
© Kat Stiennon 2015
Like the divertissements, the fairy variations were lush little dances, done with sparkle and well-turned technique.  Spring fairy Kristin Hammer was fleet of foot, very alegre; in the summer fairy waltz Elizabeth Cohen flaunted sumptuous extensions; fall fairy Jackson Warring’s bounding brise volés and cabrioles reminded me of the Greek deity Pan as he’s often represented in Rococo art. 
Fairy godmother / winter fairy Annika Reikersdorfer, technically still an apprentice, came up through the ranks at the eleven-year-old School of Madison Ballet. At eighteen she’s already mastered the length, the lift, the speed, the syncopation, the slink, the very American-ness that mark Balanchine’s departure from the Russian school. She was the quintessential storybook fairy godmother, bouréeing around Cinderella’s hearth sprinkling fairy dust, and her winter fairy variation, a mix of fancy footwork (a gargouillade, entrechat quatres), feathery, long-legged echappé releves, and little sixth position prances, glittered like new-fallen snow. 

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