[This piece originally ran on Crosscut.]
When a three-quarter-length tulle ballet skirt hits a certain sweet spot on the calf, it evokes one of the most pleasing iconic ratios — think of the lip of a bell encircling its clapper or the curving girth of a willow tree around its trunk. Fill a stage with a perfect storm of these swirling, swaying tutus and it’s near impossible to resist whatever atmospheric or transformative event the weird world of ballet is issuing forth. A glittery drizzle starts to fall from the sky? Hell yeah!! Bring it on!
Whether or not you love this super-scrubbed, family-friendly production, I defy you to find a smarter, more sensuous tulle skirt than the ones, designed by Martin Pakledinaz, that are elevating Pacific Northwest Ballet’s version of “Cinderella” to great success. The production runs for one more weekend at the McCaw Hall Opera House stage, with an extra Sunday show just added.
Matinee or evening, the presentations of this three-act story ballet feel like an opening night at every performance, what with the dazzling array of stage costumes matched by couples and families pouring into the aisles in silks and lacework, often escorting their own flushed Cinderella-designee (petit and grand sizes, both).
This “Cinderella” is in some practical sense still having its premiere, since the 1994 ballet — which is set to a modified Sergei Prokofiev score by choreographer Kent Stowell — has never been seen in proper scale on the Opera House stage. (When they premiered the ballet in 1994, PNB was mounting its works on the Mercer Arts Arena stage while McCaw Hall was under renovation.)
Though it’s one of the world’s seminal fairy tales, there are only a few noteworthy ballet versions (Frederick Ashton for American Ballet Theater, Maguy Marin for Lyon Opera Ballet, Matthew Bourne at Sadler’s Wells in London). There’s a small French company with a current version whose ads feature a topless ballerina nested in a mountain of flowing white fabric. But that’s not what you are going to get at McCaw Hall this month.
Kent Stowell calls his version of “Cinderella” a restoration to the Romantic, and he added levity to Prokofiev’s somber original score by inserting a handful of incidental musical pieces by the composer. The 18th-century-style Tony Straiges’ sets are just what you’d expect: high hearth, glowing white horse and carriage, dappled wooded path, etc. Instant fairytale.
Eschewing any traces of farce or social commentary, this “Cinderella” is an all-White-Swan ballet if there ever was one.
Mash up Kent Stowell’s lilting, darting choreographic phrases with this highly overexposed story, and it’s hard to avoid a certain restlessness. Thus the heft and color and genius of Pakledinaz’ costumes are a godsend. They elevate a sadly earthbound movement lexicon.
Though Stowell conceives this as a traditional story ballet, there are no bravura phrases for the dancers, except for the performing jester, whose dazzling moves serve as “entertainment,” not a simile for any internal or external struggle/success. A dream interlude that shows the young Cinderella with her mother and father is the only segment that touches close to a feeling of loss; it’s too bad it is not reprised somehow during the transformation process when the godmother appears to prep her for the ball.
Young children respond to the simple characterizations in this ballet at first, but I think even they get bored by the sameness: Ugliness and stupidity appear as either overly erect (the haughty stepmother, the fey dance master) or clumsy and inattentive (the stepsisters in their floppy hats and crinolines).
It is part of Cinderella’s virtue that she bears no scars from her mistreatment — her shabby dress and shedding broom are the only signs of the painful cage she’s been imprisoned in. Yet the fact that Cinderella’s unflagging goodness constantly translates into smooth, flowing steps — always humble and pretty — can get wearing.
There’s also an uncomfortable struggle to portray youth here. Cinderella’s slightly-shorter skirt length distracted me, especially at the ball. She didn’t exactly look like she ran in from a tennis match, but it came kind of close. More successful is to cast a ballerina with a round face to signify youth. That’s why Carrie Imler and Carla Forbes come off most bewitching to me in this role.
Though her steps feel lackluster, this plain, goody-two-shoes Cinderella does seems to grow bit by bit during her journey — as if by proxy — when she dances with another. While she herself has to forever symbolize humble virtue, the prince demonstrates her dancing joy when he partners with her; at this point, her godmother’s superior womanly strength and power seem to fill the young girl, too.
Thanks to the acting strength of PNB’s dancers, along with the heart-stopping beauty of Pakledinaz’s costumes, this gentle narrative eventually bores its way into one’s visual and feeling memory. There’s something in every act: from the crisp corps de ballet women spinning in their perfect, opalescent tulle skirts to the gracious Jeffrey Stanton in his perfect French-blue suit, to the sheer majesty of Ariana Lallone’s entrances and exits in her bustle skirt. Stanton and Lallone, as well as Stacy Lowenberg (pictured), will all be missed dearly when they retire this year.
Once or twice, this gentle, anesthetized confection is easily toppled. In the opening of Act II — when the stage blooms with a sea of red gowns and suits — the costumes feel like they over-promise something. The hue is so dramatic, so “Masque-of-the Red-Death,” it seems possible to imagine that some villainy may now be released? But, no. Despite the stained set, the ballet never strays from its tonal path of loveliness and just rewards. The red sea of dancers is ultimately nothing more than a poppy field for the prince and jester to cavort between.
No matter the wobbles, the power of fairytale, especially when bedecked in the perfect tulle skirt, has a sustaining power. And the dancing is as strong as ever. Besides, the killer dramatic and physical challenges will come soon enough, when Pacific Northwest Ballet debuts a historical reconstruction of “Giselle,” from Peter Boal and Doug Fullington, at the opera house in June.