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BALLET REVIEW : One Grim Fairy Tale From Seattle

June 15, 1995|MARTIN BERNHEIMER | TIMES MUSIC/DANCE CRITIC

COSTA MESA — The ending of "Cinderella," as performed by the Pacific Northwest Ballet at the Orange County Performing Arts Center on Tuesday, tells all.

The waif with the heart of gold has been united at last with her preening and prancing prince. The lowly kitchen hearth has magically disappeared. The tippy-toe lovers take a sunlit stroll to the strains of a dark Prokofiev adagio amid lily-white clouds on a pastel-blue back-cloth. They dutifully, if absent-mindedly, execute a shapeless happy-ever-after pas de deux. As the ultimate cadence beckons, a shower of heavenly tinsel-dust bestows benediction.

Curtain.

The effect is very sweet, rather shallow and pretty cheap. Vegas has reared its kitschy head.

Kent Stowell, co-director of the company and choreographer of this million-dollar extravaganza, apparently couldn't come up with a climactic gesture for his dancers. So he left the last memorable move to his designer.

Cop-out.

No one ever said Prokofiev's "Cinderella" was easy. The inherent musical convolutions--heroic but somber, sometimes even dreary--have defeated many a better, and better-known, choreographer. Still, one had hoped for more illumination, and less evasion.

Stowell has taken the liberty of refashioning the ballet in his own image. He has cut more than 10% of the score and reshuffled much that remains. More jarring, he has cannibalized a lot of music that the composer never intended for this context. Stylistic coherence be damned. Ditto historical authenticity.

The jaunty, cynical march from "The Love for Three Oranges" pops up in a ball-scene divertissement, led, most incongruously, by Cinderella's demure Fairy Godmother. The over-popular "Classical" Symphony gavotte, which Prokofiev himself recycled for "Romeo and Juliet," adds the wrong note of courtly pomp to the palace ceremonial. The prince's banal world-tour is omitted, perhaps justifiably, but its absence leaves an awkward structural gap.

Unrelated interpolations from "Yevgeny Onegin," the Eighth Piano Sonata, "Lermontov" and "The Stone Flower" serve as surface padding. Stowell cast his net wide, and caught a weird assortment of fish in the dubious process.

It might have been easy to overlook--not forgive, perhaps, but at least forget--the imposition of these free-and-easy second-hand ideas if they had been reinforced by choreographic inspiration. The level of invention on display, alas, tends toward the primitive.

The expressive vocabulary seems predicated on classical classroom basics, and repetition is made to supplant development. No formal mime advances the narrative, but the cast is required to deliver a great deal of fussy busy-work (also busy fussy-work) to telegraph the plot essentials. The body language remains rudimentary.

Oh-so-cute kiddies, locally recruited, clutter the stage, especially at magic-effects time. Possibly in the spirit of political correctness, Cinderella's ugly stepsisters have been turned into merely silly stepsisters. The stepmother isn't nasty, just dull. And, in case anyone gets bored out front, Stowell has appropriated that flying-imp jester whose antics have disfigured so many Soviet "Swan Lakes." Incongruously, the little guy functions here as a very democratic prince's pal, not to mention rival in bravura display.

Characterization isn't Stowell's obvious forte. Nor is sensitivity to the musical pulse. The steps tend to be fast, even when the music is slow--and it is slow much of the time. The prince waltzes with his jester pretty much as he waltzes with his ballerina. Moments of longing aren't clearly differentiated from moments of fulfillment. Comic figures make their points primarily via pratfalls.

Subtlety is scarce. And so is charm. Forget wit, and don't even think about whimsy. Seattle has sent us a grim fairy tale.

The trappings, however, are nice. Tony Straiges' storybook sets create lavish romantic illusions. The costumes, designed by the ubiquitous Martin Pakledinaz, tread a fine line between opulence and glitz.

The dancing is always competent. Unfortunately, it is often bland.

Louise Nadeau exudes airy innocence as Cinderella, mustering a pre-fab smile and all-purpose arabesque to signal instant rapture. Her tutu solid flash seldom melts.

Ross Yearsley partners her as a fleet, one-note hero. Andre Reyes, remembered from his days with the San Francisco Ballet, whips through the pesky jester's duties, inevitable barrel-turns and all, with elan.

Anne Derieux brings a semblance of senior-ballerina grace to the maternal platitudes of the chief fairy on duty. Kimberly Davey and Marisa Albee stumble earnestly through the fatuous charades of the stepsisters, the latter illustrating the timeless point that princes don't make passes at girls who wear glasses.

Paul Gibson stalks the boards with neat intricacy as an evil sprite, ably seconded by Benjamin Houk and Julie Tobiason in an oh-so-adorable Harlequin-and-Columbine duet. Uko Gorter bumbles sympathetically as Cinderella's hen-pecked dad, and Ariana Lallone strikes prim poses as the step-maternal hen.

The many minor roles are dispatched with energy and enthusiasm. The corps looks well-trained (the women, as is often the case in regional companies, more so than the men).

The most distinctive, most passionate impulses in this "Cinderella" emanate from the pit, where Stewart Kershaw works poignant wonders with members of the Pacific Symphony Orchestra. Ironically, this "Cinderella" sounds more compelling than it looks.

* Prokofiev's "Cinderella," presented by the Pacific Northwest Ballet at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Final performance tonight at 8. $18-$49. (714) 556-2122, ext. 209.

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