"CINDERELLA," Feb. 9-25, Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South (801-869-6920 or balletwest.org) running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (two intermissions)
SALT LAKE CITY — Frederick Ashton’s “Cinderella” ballet has all the winning elements: a beloved fairy tale, a well-known score, grand, sweeping sets and costumes, romance, dazzling bravura and big comedy.
Ballet West proved that it's up for the monstrous undertaking, demonstrating its artistry on Friday evening during the first of 12 performances at the Capitol Theatre.
But despite its traditional trappings, this "Cinderella" isn’t nearly as sugary as you’d expect.
The composer, Sergei Prokofiev, made certain of that when he wrote the decidedly dark and moody score in 1943 — which at times reaches for sinister harmonic twists and even strays into the atonal realm.
Ashton’s creation, however, downplays the weight of the music by keeping things fairly light and traditional above the orchestra pit in the spirit of grand fairy tales. Filled with hilarious antics, cheerful pantomime and bright choreography, one may not truly appreciate the understated difficulty and intricacy of the steps for not just the principals but also the subsidiary roles — steps upon which ballet companies test their mettle.
The poetic love of Cinderella and the Prince — from its birth to its flowering to its triumph over encumbrances — was portrayed exquisitely by Arolyn Williams and Rex Tilton Friday evening.
Williams' doe-eyed innocence, ethereal quality and weightless fragility perfectly expressed her character’s inexperienced yearning and inspiring resilience. Tilton’s Prince was both commanding and at times uncertain — opposing forces working inside the young royal, whose pampered assurance is countered by an inexpressible longing for meaning and simplicity. Their meeting gives new purpose to both characters, and that fresh confidence is reflected in their dancing in dramatic and subtle ways.
Beau Pearson and Christopher Ruud in drag as the stepsisters nearly steal the show with their uproarious shenanigans. This isn’t Grimm’s tale, after all, where the sisters cut off their toes to help them fit into the glass slipper. Charles Perrault’s version, upon which this ballet is based, transforms the two into forgivable clowns instead of malevolent monsters. The audience howled Friday night as the two bounced about, adjusting wigs and whacking each other with fans and powder puffs.
Perhaps the most diverting scene appears in Act I as the stepsisters are being outfitted for the royal ball with their dancing instructor in tow as a bemused Cinderella looks on. These stepsisters are seriously ugly — completely bald save a few straggly wisps — and dressed in garish makeup and oversized bonnets. One sister is bossy and flirtatious, the other is a cowardly bawlbaby, and when they bicker — which they often do — things get even more outrageous.
If the stepsisters are the ballet's comic relief, the Jester is the acrobat, and Christopher Sellars flexed his muscles in the role, showcasing jaw-dropping leaps and a dizzying array of turns. He opened Act II with aplomb, executing a number of consecutive split jumps, grand jetes, pirouettes and the like. Yet he was all smiles instead of a collapsed heap of exhaustion, taking the concept of effortlessness to an art form.
Along with the expert dancing of Emily Adams as the Fairy Godmother, the ballet features four other fairies of note, each named for the season they govern: Sayaka Ohtaki, Beckanne Sisk, Katherine Lawrence and Allison DeBona danced the roles of Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter fairies, respectively, with panache.
The corps de ballet as well as the courtiers during the ball seem to enjoy a unique choreography that favors stark angles and leaps, contracting torsos, sweeping port de bras and heads thrown back in abandon. Despite Cinderella’s innocence, her meeting with the prince isn’t typical of a story ballet either. She’s not bashful — she doesn’t hide or run away — rather, looks him squarely in the eye. These two are immediately on equal footing.
Ashton’s “Cinderella” is in many ways akin to the other ballet giants like “Swan Lake” or “Sleeping Beauty.” Yet both the music and movement were created nearly 100 years later, during World War II’s aftermath — a period far different from that of predecessors like Petipa or Tchaikovsky.
An interest in developing psychological portraits of characters translates into a quirky, sometimes sarcastic score filled with unexpected twists and turns. And although Ashton’s steps appear time-honored and traditional, his creation is undoubtedly 20th century in its complexity and commentary.
The ballet is full of little in-jokes, like the comedic snippets from “The Nutcracker” and “Sleeping Beauty” during the stepsisters’ variations, and how the dancers are grouped like clock cogs to remind one of an unyielding clock as midnight approaches. Watch, too, for Cinderella’s famous descent en point down the steps to the ball.
Finally, revel in the moment when our protagonist awakes by the fire after landing back home, mourning her reality but basking in what she believes has been a wonderful dream, only to discover the other glass slipper in her apron pocket. Williams nailed the scene — elevating it from merely merry to beautifully emotional. If your eyes water and you wonder how you ended up crying during a fairy tale like “Cinderella,” look around you — you likely won't be alone.