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October 13, 2006

Joffrey Ballet trades glass slippers for pointe shoes

Last year the Joffrey captured the tragedy and romance of two famous star-crossed lovers when it staged Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Chicago’s premiere ballet company continues the two-year celebration of its 50-year anniversary with a much happier love story—the full-length premiere of Cinderella.

With a story as old as this classic rags-to-riches fairytale, it’s difficult to make each new version unique. The Joffrey, with the help of Sir Frederick Ashton’s choreography and Sergei Prokofiev’s musical score, creates a Cinderella all its own. It took the company many years to bring this ballet to the stage, but it appears to have been well worth the wait.

The performance opens with a bit of comic relief when the curtain lifts to reveal two men in drag at center stage: the evil stepsisters. Returning to the Windy City as special guest artists to dance the parts specially cast for them by company founder Robert Joffrey, Gary Chryst and Christian Holder (who took their final bow at the Auditorium Theatre in 1979 and currently work as choreographers) never miss a beat or fail to draw a laugh.

For most of Act I, veterans Chryst and Holder steal the spotlight as they prepare for the ball with the help of hairdressers, wardrobe assistants, and one frustrated dance instructor. Maia Wilkins, as Cinderella, patiently awaits her moment to shine, dusting the fireplace until she’s left alone to lapse into dreams of happier days when her mother was alive. While gracefully sweeping the kitchen floor, Wilkins shows why she landed the title role, mastering her tricky relevés and floating on her balances and turns.

With the fairy godmother and the Fairies of the Four Seasons as Cinderella’s entourage, the soloists close out the opening act with variations on the classic story that offer a glimpse at the talent tucked away in this company. After surviving their routines, the benefactresses send the transformed Cinderella off to meet Prince Charming in her silver pumpkin coach.

As the ball began in Act II, the audience gasped at the palatial scenery. Towering Corinthian columns, bright candelabras, and sparkling pastel tutus replace Cinderella’s darkly lit kitchen and the heavy-colored costumes from Act I. The stark contrast between the two sets helps indicate the happy ending in store for the heroine, who commands everyone’s complete attention as she descends down a small staircase into the crowded ballroom on full pointe.

While this portion of the ballet is probably intended as the highlight of the evening, it is actually where the Joffrey falters. The Fairies of the Four Seasons, who seemed to pull off their variations with such ease before, have trouble dancing in unison. Even the comedic contributions from Chryst and Holder, who flirt and battle for beaux, cannot fully make up for the little faux pas by the soloists and corps de ballet.

Furthermore, Ashton’s choreography disappoints in this portion of the show, showcasing only a very brief pas de deux shared between Wilkins and Willy Shives, who dances the part of the Prince. It seems as if the couple has just met when the clock strikes midnight and Cinderella must flee the castle wearing her worn-out rags.

From there, the performance winds down to its happily ever after ending by returning to the same elements that made the opening so enjoyable. Wilkins takes one more turn at center stage, dancing with the broom as she remembers her evening. Chryst and Holder serve up a few more chuckles as they recount the ball to Cinderella and later try on the famous glass slipper—in this case a pointe shoe studded with rhinestones.

Bringing this rendition of Cinderella to the stage has certainly been a labor of love for the Joffrey. Not only does it mark the first new full-length ballet mounted by the company since The Nutcracker premiered in 1987, it’s also the first time that Ashton’s rendition, originally set for the Royal Ballet in 1948, has been performed in the United States. Robert Joffrey passed away in 1988 without presenting this production—his final wish for his dancers—making the show an even more special occasion in history.

All in all, Cinderella is a spectacle well worth the $20 student rush ticket, especially if you can catch Julianne Kepler in the title role and Michael Levine as her cavalier on Saturday, October 14. The two were perfect together as Romeo and Juliet last season, and later they lit up the stage in Cool Vibrations, the world premiere of Donald Byrd’s Motown Suite. They’ll most likely strike up the same chemistry in this performance.