Fort Worth Ballet Company
at the Chicago Theatre November 22-26
Cinderella, Paul Mejia’s ballet, was Chicago City Ballet’s most inspired creation. Designed as an annual Thanksgiving attraction for the entire family, Cinderella was CCB’s outstanding artistic and box-office success. The beautiful, witty costumes by Ben Benson, the sumptuous sets by Steven Rubin, and the sparkling choreography wedded to Sergey Prokofiev’s enchanting score, delighted audiences for four seasons. Whether danced by guest star Suzanne Farrell or CCB’s own principals, Cinderella was a winner.
In 1986, however, CCB disappeared, the victim of rancorous arguments between management and the board of directors. Cinderella also disappeared from Chicago, and Thanksgiving became a balletic desert for thousands of families.
But sometimes miracles happen. Last weekend, Mejia’s Cinderella returned to Chicago as fresh and pretty as ever for six performances by the Fort Worth Ballet Company, which Mejia now heads.
The three-year absence has not withered Cinderella’s charms. She shows no sign of aging. Although the sets have been modified for touring, they still frame the story and the dancing with spectacle enough to delight adults as well as children. The magical pumpkin coach especially is every child’s dream of a fairy-tale fantasy come to life.
The costumes for the 115 local tots who performed–as butterflies, bees, ladybugs, caterpillars, cabbages, mushrooms, and other forest flora and fauna–are among the wittiest I’ve ever seen. The fireflies and ladybugs, whose bottoms light up pretty much in time to the music, were irresistible, and 12 youngsters who represented the numerals on the clock warning Cinderella of the witching hour were a special delight for their professional precision. The many parents who schlepped their kids to all those rehearsals had a perfect right to beam with pride: their offspring just about stole the show. My only gripe was the use of taped music. Prokofiev deserves better.
Cinderella has long been an appealing subject for choreographers and composers, but Prokofiev’s enchanting 1945 score sparked new interest in the fairy tale for numerous choreographers. The Bolshoi, Kirov, and Royal ballets all have their own Cinderellas, as does American Ballet Theatre. Each interprets the basic plot a little differently. I understand that the Paris Opera’s new Cinderella goes to Hollywood. The mind boggles!
Happily, Mejia has stayed closer to tradition, and if memory serves me, this production is little different from CCB’s. It has the same pluses–lots of dance, and lots of adorable scene-stealer kids. One flaw is the minor confusion caused by telescoping the plot in the first act. A big plus is the Fairy Godmother’s expanded role–somewhat like the Lilac Fairy’s in The Sleeping Beauty. Maria Thomas brought a velvety authority and lovely expansive movement to the part.
Maria Terezia Balogh, who played Cinderella on the evening I was there, like Thomas had been a CCB principal. Both now have a similar status with FWB, and the two alternated their roles for this engagement. Both demonstrated an impressive maturity in their presentation, and a newfound stylistic elegance in their arms, in effortless loose extensions, in overall clarity of classic line, and in greater insight into the characters they danced.
Balogh’s Cinderella encompassed a broad emotional and balletic scope, and she never faltered, technically or dramatically. She was always an interesting artist with CCB, but now she exhibits a real presence. As the abused slavey, she was poignant yet spunky. As the joyous celebrant at the ball, she danced with rare abandon, tossing herself recklessly into the prince’s arms during their pas de deux. And when her prince recognized her by her slipper, she was an ecstatic, triumphant woman in love. Her matchstick arms, however, and overall anorexic look are worrisome.
Todd Edson was her tall, handsome, and boyishly callow prince. He was a responsive actor and confident partner, a virtuosic, high-flying hero embarked on a worldwide quest for his princess. He was obviously in firm control of his technique, even when an occasional uneven landing marred his multiple tours en l’air.
FWB looked very good in this particular work, but then Cinderella is not representative of a troupe’s versatility and stylistic unity. However, several dancers made strong individual impressions. And because the company has only 23 dancers, several had to double in some roles. Angela Amort and Kelli Moser, uninhibitedly comic as the mean stepsisters, were equally effective as the Two Temptations, trying to lure the Prince from his search for Cinderella. Benjamin Bowman was a charismatic standout as Fall and also as Harlequin at the ball. I’d like to see them again in a broader repertory, as I would Stephen Jones, who played the Ashman, and Jeffrey Crevier, Jeffrey Plourde, and Frederick Trenary, who offered strong character dancing as Cobblers.
Not every adult onstage was a professional dancer. Ruth Silverman, a local writer, had the enviable opportunity to camp it up as the stepmother, a role she alternated with Judy Hevrdejs, a Chicago Tribune reporter.
The stage of the Chicago Theatre is not the best for showing off dance to full advantage: it is so shallow that it had to be built up for these performances. Even so, full-cast tableaux were not as striking as they should have been. That Cinderella looked as good as it did says something about the ballet and the talented people performing it.