Kent Stowell’s “Cinderella” returns to PNB

Lesley Rausch as Cinderella and principal dancer Jeffrey Stanton as the Prince. Photo Angela Sterling

By R.M. Campbell

The story of Cinderella is one that seems to have universal attraction in opera and particularly ballet. This season, for instance, there are four different productions in the United Kingdom: from Matthew Bourne’s, who set his during World War II, to the classic one of 1948 by Frederick Ashton. Pacific Northwest Ballet has its own version, choreographed by Kent Stowell. It was premiered in 1994, followed by a short tour, then revived and subsequently shelved. With its huge cast of adults and children, the production returned to the stage this weekend at McCaw Hall and will run through Feb. 13. Ticket sales, happily for PNB, are already above projections.

There are inevitably different takes on the central character and narrative. Stowell does not veer much from the standard view: Cinderella is pretty, generous in spirit and put-upon by her step-sisters and step-mother; her father loving but helpless; the prince, handsome and determined. This is a pure romantic tale with the pair of step-sisters and step-mother as comic relief. There is lots of dancing, although a good share of it is somewhat generic in feeling. The score has been quite altered with a lot of other Prokofiev music added, including incidental music to the play “Eugene Onegin” and incidental music from his opera “Love for Three Oranges” that everyone will recognize. There is other music as well, in addition to the order of the music in the ballet switched around such as the big waltz with which Prokofiev ended Act I. It now opens Act II, and what a spectacular opening, especially with Martin Pakledinaz’s red, red costumes. Ballet has always been the freest in the performing arts to make these kinds of alterations to a composer’s intentions. “Cinderella” is not a strong score, so one does not object particularly. Objections are rare even with “Swan Lake,” one of the greatest ballet scores ever composed.

The alteration of the music, which few people will recognize, was made to accommodate Stowell’s dramatic interpolation of contrasting sections of the ballet, what Jeanie Thomas calls in the program “the contrast between the Real World and the Dream World of Cinderella’s experience.” These things often read better in a program than they do on stage without elaborate explanation. So much of ballet in general does not adhere to any strict narrative but is simply dance for its own sake. Most people will not realize what is being suggested or simply ignore it. With “Cinderella,” the extra elements are rather innocuous and pass by quickly with little effect on the whole. One still concentrates on the key figures with everything else sliding by.

One amplification is especially effective, however — the dance sequence in which a dance teacher tries to teach the clumsy step-sisters how to dance. It is always amusing but especially so in Stowell’s hands, as well as with Olivier Wevers who danced the Dancing Master role opening night. Indeed, Stowell was particularly effective in drawing the caricatures of the family. Much of the humor is broad but it works. Ariana Lallone was superb as the odious step-mother, very nicely finished. Her daughters are more broadly drawn, quite rightly, indeed they are hilarious in the hands of Lindsi Dec and Chainessa Eames. They have a natural talent for comedy and used every advantage they were given. I hope other comic roles will open up for them. Uko Gorter danced the character role of the father sympathetically.

It was good to see Lesley Rausch in the title role. She is a young dancer who has steadily risen within the company’s ranks. She has a lovely, soft presence on stage with a sinuous line and seamless phrasing. Individual details will come in time. Jeffrey Stanton, who has been with the company for 17 years, made an appealing prince. He is not asked to do a lot, but what he does he does handsomely. Carrie Imler was lyrical and quietly spoken as the Godmother, and Abby Relic, Brittany Reid, Sarah Ricard Orza and Laura Gilbreath danced Spring, Summer, Auburn and Winter, respectively, with sweet panache.

The dancer who made one sit up straight in one’s seat was Jonathan Porretta as the Jester. He was pure Porretta which is saying a lot, and worth the price of admission. Who else in the company can dance like that, with technical surety and dramatic flair? Nothing is smudged. everything articulated. The Jester is a bravura role and Porretta danced it like one. Porretta was not with the company when Stowell created the role, but he surely amplifies it with his virtuosity and bravura.

Tony Straiges’ decor was attractive but predictable. Pakledinaz’s costumes were all one has come to expect from this enormously talented costume designer. Randall G. Chiarelli’s lighting design was apt.

Emil de Cou conducted. Although he does not formally begin his tenure as music director until the beginning of the fall season, he was in the pit for “Cinderella.” His appointment is reassuring that the company values this excellent orchestra and wants it to continue. De Cou has a long history with dance companies, including American Ballet Theatre and San Francisco Ballet. The PNB orchestra was in good shape Friday night, sometimes eloquent and sometimes lyrical.

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