It is easy sometimes to forget that one of the simplest joys of art is the escapism it offers into a magical world. Asheville Ballet epitomized this spirit with their production of Cinderella. The enchanted essence of this work was perfectly captured by choreographers Ann Dunn (a professor of Humanities at UNC-Asheville as well as the Director of the Asheville Ballet), and Lyle Laney, a well-established dancer and choreographer in Asheville and frequent collaborator with Dunn. In the hands of an amateur company, Cinderella can come off as trite, predictable, and un-engaging. However, Dunn, Laney, and the impeccably talented dancers of the Asheville Ballet embraced the innocence and unabashed simplicity of the work, bringing a beautiful performance to Asheville.
The ballet began with this aesthetic in mind, as Rebecca O'Quinn gracefully pirouetted across the stage as the Fairy Godmother, providing both dramatic foreshadowing and an elegant prelude for the audience. This graceful opening was immediately juxtaposed with comical appearances by Lyle Laney and Jacob Walas in drag as the two dreaded step-sisters. Throughout the performance, both dancers provided acutely timed comic relief, punctuating the coming-of-age story with playful humor that had the audience in stitches. The incomparable Fleming Lomax rounded out the sinister trio as the infamous step-mother. Lomax embraced the intensely visceral nature of her character, her deliberate and decisive moves reflected in every motion she made throughout the performance. Whether she was leaping across the stage with a flurry of arabesques or simply standing in second position as an auxiliary fixture to the other dancers, she always captured the menacing terror of the classic villain. Her attention to technique and dramatic flair made for an especially vivid tableau in the dance lesson scene of the first act, where Laney and Walas also shone with their masterfully synchronized motions. Emily Craig, in the lead role of Cinderella, demonstrated impressive technique en-pointe, her refined movements a delight to watch. Only a high-school senior, Craig's graceful piques, tendus, and releves were seamlessly coordinated into an elegant monologue.
Dunn, Laney and Craig's collaboration demonstrated the effectiveness of dance as a storytelling medium. Craig's stark transition from agile fantasizing about the ball to a dramatic collapse into tears perfectly represented the oppressive reality of Cinderella's environment. However, it should be noted that the choreography and subtly tuned performance of the dancers was only part of what brought this timeless tale to life. The visual splendor of this ballet was one of the best to date for the Asheville Ballet. The extravagant costumes and breathtaking set design were powerful tools in the telling of Cinderella. The opulence of the ballroom, complete with a stunning chandelier, provided a perfect complement to the dancer's lightly hued yet tastefully colorful attire.
Of course, the music played a huge role in bringing the story to life as well. While not the strongest of Prokofiev's works, his music serves its purpose here exceptionally well, enhancing the action on stage. Dunn, who has a masterful ability to fuse music and dance into a method of storytelling, exquisitely crafted the amalgamation of musical ideas with choreography throughout the entire production. However, there were two especially powerful moments which stood out in the performance, both near the end of the first Act in the Ballroom scene. Craig's entrance as the transformed Cinderella was expertly coordinated with the textural change in Prokofiev's music; the ecstatic and glimmering melody of the flute and sparkle of the triangle's ostinato providing a dazzling backdrop for the four fairies (beautifully performed with poise and maturity by the young dancers Leah Lynch, Conner Hall, Lauren Zitney and Eleanor McDonald), before Craig made her entrance to Prokofiev's soaring romantic theme. The second highlight was the final scene of the first act, where the clock strikes midnight and Cinderella's joyous escapade is brought to a halt. The hypnotic shrilling piccolo and menacing low brass in Prokofiev's score were brilliantly symbolized by the juxtaposition of the ensemble's static, robot-like motions (representing the mechanical insistence of the ticking clock), with Craig's frenzied escape from the ball.
Of course, this reviewer would be remiss if he failed to mention the most memorable character. Rebecca O' Quinn beautifully captured the heartwarming and nurturing spirit of the Fairy Godmother. Her elegant solo dance in the second act, where the Fairy Godmother provides a blessing for Cinderella's and the Prince's wedding, could have easily been one of the least engaging scenes in the ballet. However, O' Quinn relished in the opportunity to demonstrate her polished finesse and sublime grace, beautifully transitioning from elegant plies into an effortless cavalcade of tasteful fouetté turns.
Cinderella is a beautiful reminder of a simple aspect of ballet's longevity as an art form. The paradoxically larger-than-life yet at times intimate and deeply connecting power of refined dance in a symbiotic relationship with music makes for great storytelling. A picture can tell a thousand words. But in ballet, a few carefully placed motions of choreography by a skilled dancer to the appropriate musical score can transcend words altogether. Cinderella, while not the most thought-provoking, cerebrally intense, or provocative ballet Asheville Ballet has produced, is a beautiful masterpiece. Dunn and Laney's entirely original choreography and the Asheville Ballet's hard working troupe of talented artists have produced a work that is accessible without being pedantic, a ballet that reminds us of the medium's majesty and magic.
Cinderella will be repeated May 17 at 2:30 and 7:30 p.m., in the same venue. For details, see the sidebar.