Known around the world in a fascinating profusion of shapes and variants, the story of Cinderella perpetually invites tinkering. So the whimsical adornments and deletions decreed by North Carolina Dance Theatre artistic director Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux in his three-act choreography of the beloved fairytale can hardly be labeled as sacrilege. When Cindy’s Fairy Godmother arrives at her scullery – in one of costume designer A. Christina Giannini’s most resplendent creations – she not only dresses her protégée like a princess, she sits her down and has each of the Four Seasons, plus Pan, perform a solo for her pleasure. Surely a ball hosted by a mere mortal is something of a comedown afterwards. And what about the FG’s reminder that Cinderella return home by midnight? A trifle, like the announcement of the Prince’s ball or the triumphant fitting of the glass slipper, that isn’t included in Bonnefoux’s scenario.
Our evening at the new Knight Theater was filled with many other balletic caprices, large and small, that conspire to inflate this bedtime story into a full-length entertainment set to the tangy Serge Prokofiev score. The Stepsisters and Stepmother were immediately depicted as objects of mockery, introduced to us in their underwear while a Dressmaker and his Assistant showed them sample fabrics and struggled to take measurements. A Dance Master was driven to distraction by the Stepsisters, trying to achieve success in a last-minute lesson, while Cinderella, at the other side of the stage, mimics the master’s moves with effortless grace. His energetic pupils – Mary-Ellen Beaudreau, dressed in a garish polka-dotted ladybug gown, and Alessandra Ball, in a less-repellent peacock rig – were models of hopeless gawkiness. Yet both were trumped in comedy by Mark Diamond, playing the Stepmother with the fluttery hauteur of a grand dame.
Act 2 is even more delicious in its comedy and splendor. At the palace, the Prince’s entrance was precisely timed to coincide with the moment that the Stepsisters are splayed on the floor after multiple attempts at coquetry, romantic conquest, and dancing with the nobles. Cinderella’s entrance underscores Bonnefoux’s determination that we see her as a demigoddess, for she is brought in by a retinue of courtiers, above whom Cinderella is standing at her full height, a creature of the air. In a story that routinely has us sharing the heroine’s suffering, joy, and wonder from beginning to end, such a radical restaging coaxes us into viewing Cinderella from the Prince’s perspective. Scene 2, with the curtains closed, is a transparent ploy to allow all the scenery and costume changes necessary for the denouement. Yet what a childish delight it is as the Prince’s epic search for the owner of the glass slipper is reduced to a silly, willfully repetitious puppet show. The cardboard Parthenon and Taj Mahal that pop up on the horizon are about Prince-size as the lovelorn hero and his steed girdle the globe.
The slipper scene uses the whole diagonal of the stage for the Prince to notice Cinderella in the far upstage right corner, as he plows through the desperately importunate Stepsisters and the despairing Stepmother to reach his beloved. And really, why go through the formality of the fitting when Cinderella has had the foresight to keep the matching slipper tucked away in her apron? Yet even as the Prince is seen kneeling so charmingly at Cinderella’s petite feet – with Diamond turning up the Stepmother’s grief to its highest gear – we are not finished. We shall have a wedding! All of Act 3 is devoted to the pageantry and festivity. It is an orgy of double cabrioles, and David Ingram, filling in as the Prince on opening night for the injured Addul Manzano, was only one of numerous celebrants. A court Jester, Max Levy, and a Master of Ceremonies, Sasha Janes, also scintillate during the revels.
NC Dance Theatre, the NCDT2 troupe, and apprentices from the NCDT School of Dance showed they are more than capable of splendidly filling all 103 roles in Bonnefoux’s choreography. The company is so deep that Traci Gilchrest, who danced so divinely as Cinderella on opening night, will sit out four of the 10 performances. She and Kara Wilkes, a sparkling Fairy Godmother on opening night, will slum together as the vulgar Stepsisters for two other performances. Don’t imagine that Bonnefoux has made the roles easy at either end of the spectrum. Both Gilchrest and Wilkes were called upon to dispatch demanding pointe work, and both delivered with silken élan. The excellence of NCDT’s lead dancers allowed Bonnefoux to clear the wedding scene of all the guests as Ingram and Gilchrest performed a magnificent pas de deux. After that thrilling climax, Wilkes glided in on pointe as the Fairy Godmother, took the Prince and Cinderella’s hands and joined them together, consecrating their union. Any other interpretation of that final tableau really would be sacrilege.