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Pennsylvania Ballet

'Cinderella'

by Lewis Whittington

May 3, 2003 -- The Academy of Music, Philadelphia, PA

A swirl of ball gowns, tiaras, sparkling eyes, gorgeous smiles, along with giggles, mischievousness, and of course, glittering shoes, highlighted the Pennsylvania Ballet's current dazzling production of "Cinderella." And I'm talking about off-stage, where throngs of mothers were escorted by their kids at a Saturday sold-out matinee at that venerable non-arena, the Academy of Music. It was a delightful reminder that no matter what happens in the world there is a secret life of children needs to be preserved and nurtured where adults are the invited guests.

Indeed, hundreds of young ladies, dressed to the nines, some even escorted by a few gallant young men, were in attendance. Well, okay, most of the guys were fathers and brothers, but that's beside the point. It was such a hot ticket, in fact, that PB's publicist, Denise Venuti, had trouble getting me a last-minute ticket (night tickets are still available). If we weren't listening to the ballet orchestra playing Serge Prokofiev's sumptuous score, you might have thought it was a Britney Spears concert.

Who would have thought that such a un-PC story of a servant girl living in a fantasy world, where a man will rescue her from a torturous life, would play among today's young ladies weaned on the jaded sophistication of reality TV, Spears and other MTV Lolitas? Well, I guess their mothers knew.

This Cinderella is not a dusty old fairie tale. Houston Ballet choreographer Ben Stevenson's smart retelling gives us Cinderella, recalling the story everybody knows, but we get the back story too. She is not merely the hapless waif suffering at the mercy of her evil stepsisters. She understands all of the problems of her inner world and can still meet the mysteries of the forest outside. This is a character with dimension.

Yes, she escapes into her fantasy world where she can daydream about love and secretly grieve over her dead mother, while sweeping out the hearth and scrubbing the floors. Cinderella has to deal with the cruelty of her stepsisters, who treat her like a slave and abuse her physically and mentally, but she gets the best of them in the end. While her wicked stepmother preparing for the big ball lavishes all of her attention on her stepsisters, Cinderella learns how to dance.

When she is kind to the old crone who turns out to be her fairy godmother, who shows her what life has to offer by presenting the seasons of a women's life – spring, summer, autumn, fall. The ten-year old behind me named each one of the seasons as they danced on and exclaimed to her mother, "That was a great first act."

All through the ballet, children talked and reacted to the stage magic, the elaborate breakaway sets, and the colorful storybook costumes. Mostly to the evil stepsisters played to great comic effect by men in drag.

Principal dancer Dede Barfield was Cinderella from her first step in her tattered scullery clothes; her gestural acting was reminiscent of silent screen stars like Mary Pickford. The young ladies in the audience gasped as she stepped out of the enchanted carriage in front of the palace ballroom, where the prince was waiting to meet his princess. Barfield's technical precision was breathtaking. She was indeed a role-model Cinderella for budding ballerinas, onstage and off, who can have it all and still be home by midnight.

There were a lot of lessons for the girls in the audience, the least of which is, don't settle for less than your heart's desire and if it's not a prince, keep dancing through the forest. As for the wicked stepsisters, they end up getting squired around by the court jester.

Edited by Malcolm Tay.

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