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Ballet West's 'Cinderella' begs thought — and laughs

Published: Saturday, Aug. 1 2015 4:21 p.m. MDT

Ballet West Principal Artist Christopher Ruud and Soloist Easton Smith in Sir Frederick Ashton's "Cinderella." (Erik Ostling) Ballet West Principal Artist Christopher Ruud and Soloist Easton Smith in Sir Frederick Ashton's "Cinderella." (Erik Ostling)

“CINDERELLA,” Feb 14-23, Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South, Salt Lake City. www.arttix.org

In Ballet West’s latest version of “Cinderella,” which opened to a full house on Valentine’s Day, a moody, yet deeply rich score and dreamlike choreography invite audiences to explore the usually blissful fairy tale through a contemplative lens.

In other words, for those receptive to a program with all the trimmings of a classic storybook ballet but with a darkly neoclassic, romanticist edge, this ballet is transformative.

For those envisioning Disney-en-pointe, or something similarly lighthearted, however, you may be disappointed.

Particularly stark is the seeming mismatch of music and story. It's often a wonder that this swirling score of eerie waltzes was indeed written for “Cinderella” (to answer to the question of a man sitting next to me, who turned to his wife and whispered loudly: “Are they playing the right music?”).

Ballet West first soloist Arolyn Williams with principal artist Christopher Ruud and soloist Easton Smith in Sir Frederick Ashton's "Cinderella." (Erik Ostling, © Erik Ostling 2012) Ballet West first soloist Arolyn Williams with principal artist Christopher Ruud and soloist Easton Smith in Sir Frederick Ashton's "Cinderella." (Erik Ostling, © Erik Ostling 2012)

It’s a valid question. The effect can feel perplexing. It’s a study in music and mood. Although we’re watching Fredrick Ashton’s choreography depict the classic fairytale, Prokofiev’s minor-keyed, haunting score casts an entirely different spell. Dancers wear, at times, expressions of glassy-eyed detachment, begging an examination into the ballet's layers.

It’s no wonder the title character requires acting chops. Arolyn Williams, who danced the lead role with a steady command opening night, walked the tightrope of Ashton’s flash-paced footwork with his desire for the subdued. (Ashton was a true Brit — seeking an effortless and understated effect over the melodramatic).

British dry wit, however, made less of an appearance. Cinderella’s buffoonish stepsisters, danced by Christopher Ruud and Easton Smith, were slapstick comic relief.

Ballet West First Soloists Arolyn Williams and Haley Henderson Smith in Sir Frederick Ashton's "Cinderella." (Erik Ostling) Ballet West First Soloists Arolyn Williams and Haley Henderson Smith in Sir Frederick Ashton's "Cinderella." (Erik Ostling)

As if wriggling their way into a dream sequence, Ruud and Smith bounced flat-footed around the stage, arranging wigs on their bald heads, slapping makeup on their garish faces and parading like peacocks during dress fittings, dance lessons and ball scenes. Their antics garnered big laughs from the audience.

The seasonal fairies, Sayaka Ohtaki, Emily Adams, Jacqueline Straughan and Elizabeth McGrath, as well as the corps of "the stars" were mesmerizing, as was Haley Henderson Smith as the Fairy Godmother. (Her character, cloaked in the first scene as a beggar woman to whom Cinderella gives aid, brings a certain sense of karma).

Tom Mattingly was exacting as the Prince, mastering spot-on turns and beaming gallantly. Christopher Sellars as the Jester worked his gravity-defying magic with endless spritely leaps and turns.

There’s a reason Ashton’s “Cinderella” is most notable among a sea of productions. It’s time-tested, humorous, message-driven and complex.

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