The Pacific Northwest Ballet is launching its 40th Anniversary Season with a production of "Cinderella," music by Sergei Prokofiev and choreography by Kent Stowell. I don't particularly like story ballets, because the dance is often sacrificed on the altar of plot clarity. However, I believe I am in the minority with that opinion, since story ballets are great crowd pleasers.
"Cinderella" was choreographed just as Pacific Northwest Ballet was moving into its new space, the space it currently occupies, almost 20 years ago. As a rags-to-riches tale of how things work out for the best if you just do right and keep the faith, it is an entirely appropriate story for the 40th anniversary celebration of this lovely company.
"Circus Polka," choreographed by Jerome Robbins to music by Igor Stravinsky, opened up the evening on opening night only. "Circus Polka" was really an excuse to bring Patricia Barker, a much-loved former principal dancer at PNB, back to the stage. Patricia Barker, who began dancing with the company as an apprentice in 1981 and became a principal in 1986, had a career with PNB spanning more than 20 years. The audience was clearly glad to see her back on stage.
Extracted from a larger piece involving elephants, this piece had no elephants, but rather a large group of young dancers under the direction of Barker as Ringmaster. Once they were all out on stage, they all flowed together into a moving circle of pleasing cotton candy swirls of pink and blue and green.
After a photo montage tribute to the past 40 years, "Cinderella" began with a storybook proscenium and the title written across the stage. The title page became transparent allowing us to see into a small room with a fireplace, a sideboard, and Cinderella (Carla Korbes) leaning on her broom, dreaming of the past. The wall behind her fades, allowing us to see into her dream of her parents as they once were.
From there the story unfolds very much as we all remember it: Cinderella is treated badly by her stepmother (Laura Gilbreath) and two stepsisters (Marisa Albee and Jessika Anspach), while her ineffectual father (Uko Gorter) stands by. Cinderella herself responds only with kindness.
She befriends an old beggar woman who reminds her of her dead mother. Meanwhile, her stepsisters are preparing for the prince's ball.
They rush off to the ball, leaving Cinderella behind with her broom, but the beggar woman turns out to be a fairy godmother (Carrie Imler, who also dances the part of the Memory Mother.) She sends Cinderella off in a coach, finery and glass slippers.
Cinderella dances at the ball and the prince falls in love with her, but she races off as the clock strikes midnight, leaving behind one glass slipper. The prince takes the slipper all around the countryside finally finding Cinderella and they dance off happily.
Carla Korbes as Cinderella is sweet and tender. When her two stepsisters (Marisa Albee and Jessika Anspach) are trying to learn how to dance before the ball, Korbes performs the dance moves with an easy grace.
Albee and Anspach provide the humor of the show, appearing through much of the show in silly undergarments, battling over their finery, awkwardly stumbling over one another to attract the prince's attention, and snubbing anyone else.
Some delightful moments include watching the beggar woman's transformation into the fairy godmother as her cape billows away and the scene is transformed into a dreamland. Also, the jester's (Jonathan Porretta) bold and dynamic dancing with precise spins and leaps that hang in the air, brought the audience to spontaneous applause whenever he appeared. Also not to be missed was the charming Theatre of Marvels at court, danced by an evil sprite (Eric Hipolito Jr.), a good fairy (Carrie Imler again!), harlequin (Jerome Tisserand) and columbine (Sarah Ricard Orza.)
If you enjoy children in your ballets (or if you're bringing children to the ballet -- PNB is very kid-friendly), you will delight in the dancing bugs and pumpkins in Act I.
I would have liked to see the dancers stretched more by the choreography. Karel Cruz, whom I enjoyed in the last production I saw, didn't seem challenged by his role here as the Prince. I also wanted to see more of Carla Korbes in her yearning simplicity as Cinderella, but the choreography didn't allow it. I left hungry for a little more ballet and a little less story, as lovely a story as this is.
"Cinderella" runs through September 30 at McCaw Hall, 321 Mercer St. in Seattle Center. For info or tickets, call 206-441-2424 or visit pnb.org.