Within the large theme of metamorphosis, there are few stories that can warm the heart more easily than those concerning the emergence into glory of downtrodden innocents. The Carolina Ballet gave us two such in the final program of the 2005-6 season, reprising Lynne Taylor-Corbett's The Ugly Duckling, and premiering Robert Weiss' Cinderella in Raleigh Memorial Auditorium on May 18. It was a good way to end a season in which the ballet company itself has seen many changes — departures, arrivals, recoveries, emergences — although the Carolina Ballet is hardly downtrodden.
I had some of the same problems with The Ugly Duckling that I had with it three years ago — I could really do without the narrator telling the story as it unfolds; and it seems all wrong that the newly-feathered swan does not have a glorious solo but is almost lost in the crowded dance of other creatures. The key dramatic moment of the duckling's realization of its swan identity is thrown away.
However, in one respect this version was far more appealing: The music, by Michael Moricz, instead of being performed in the string-heavy orchestral version, has been arranged for two pianos and percussion by Nancy Whelan Johnson. She and Tetyana Ryabchikova performed on pianos, and Vincent E. Moss was the percussionist. In this arrangement, the music was sprightly, humorous, and much better suited to the story, which does have its many charming minutes.
It is great fun to see the dancers having fun with their roles. Caitlin Mundth was amusing as the Mama Duck, as were Margot Martin and Dameon Nagel as King Rooster and Queen Chicken. Wei Ni as their show-off son Gobbledigook was hilarious. Margaret Severin-Hansen and Pablo Javier Perez were fabulous as felines Frick and Frack. Attila Bongar was quite fine as the King of Winter, and his winter storm scene is the most compelling of the piece. Bongar and six other male dancers brandish mylar capes in an icy light while the swan-vision (Heather Eberhardt, elegant and powerful) passes over the banished, freezing duckling.
Lara O'Brien has one disadvantage in dancing the role of the ugly duckling — no amount of drab costuming can actually make her appear ugly. So she plays up the odd duck's uncoordinated confusion, and her graceful awkwardness is very endearing. But the great thing about her reprising this role, which was set on her in 2003, was the opportunity that offered for regular ballet-goers to evaluate her growth as a dancer during the intervening years. She is still willowy and romantic, but now she moves with far more control, confidence, and power — much more a swan now, herself, than any kind of fledgling.
Robert Weiss' Cinderella does not suffer from any structural flaws or cosmetic difficulties. His varied, pleasing choreography is buoyed by Karl Moraski's multi-textured and emotionally colorful music for solo piano, which he performed from the pit. Having the live music, even from a single instrument, makes the ballet experience so much more powerful. Weiss appears to have felt this music strongly, for the dance and the music mesh beautifully. And the company's designers have outdone themselves, with fabulous sets and wonderful costumes by Jeff A.R. Jones and David Heuval, respectively. Ross Kolman's lighting, as usual, brings the scenes to life — or renders them dull and ashy, as the moment requires.
Weiss opens the piece with a prologue — the funeral procession for Cinderella's father, thus explaining how Cinderella found herself in this miserable fix, with a mean stepmother and stepsisters. This prologue is reminiscent of Orson Welles' opening scene in his film version of Othello and functions to create a dark context out of which "once upon a time..." can project its story's shining end. It is very effective in setting up the character of Cinderella and establishing her as a gentle, loving soul in contrast to the grasping harridans of her stepfamily. Julie Janus Walters as the Stepmother and Heather Eberhardt and Caitlin Mundth as the sisters were as operatically catty and mean-spirited as could be wished.
Lilyan Vigo's Cinderella was very sweet, her dancing delicate and subdued until the happy ending when she sweeps around regally with Timour Bourtasenkov. Bourtasenkov pretty much defines Prince Charming anyway, so was perfectly satisfying in the role. He and Vigo together are beautiful to look at, and Weiss gives them several lovely dances to look beautiful in.
Cyrille de la Barre was in fine fettle as the Prince's brother, the Grand Duke, to whom Weiss has given plenty of opportunity to spread his peacock feathers as he performs his grandiose maneuvers attempting to find the Prince a wife. Melissa Podcasy was wonderful as the Fairy Godmother, moving gently with soft, encouraging motions. She was glowing, especially in the dance with Cinderella after she has donned the ball gown and with the two cavaliers, Attila Bongar and Wei Ni. There is a charming little bit to animate the Fairy's injunction that Cinderella return before midnight: twelve little girls, wearing numbered headdresses, appear and arrange themselves into a clock face. Afterwards, the very minutes and hours under her command, the good Fairy herds them off stage like a bunch of chicks.
Weiss has made another fine, enjoyable story ballet with this Cinderella. It is sophisticated enough for the adult audience, with lots of pretty dances, while also being simple and clear enough for the children. The music is fresh, appealing, and expressive, and the sets and costumes make a rich visual experience. It's a great addition to the company's growing repertoire of fairy tales and a happy ending to its eighth season.