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Michael Pink tells Cinderella’s story once again

The beauty of Sergei Prokofiev’s narrative score and Milwaukee Ballet artistic director Michael Pink’s enchanting vision will unite later this month, to wrap up the ballet’s 2014–15 season with the timeless tale of “Cinderella.” 

But while Pink knows his audiences will be captivated by the servant-turned-princess, he has high hopes they’ll be equally fascinated by the personalities and struggles of the story’s supporting roles, which his production will bring to life.

“’Cinderella,’ in terms of what it is as a ballet, it is wall to wall dancing,” says Pink. “There’s comedy with the sisters, the Cinderella aspect, the character of her mother and the stepmother — everybody has stories.”

This year’s production marks a remount of Pink’s version of the ballet, which premiered in 2009 as the opener of the company’s 40th anniversary season. The ballet was a success then, but Pink expects even more this time around. “The great thing about bringing something like this production of ‘Cinderella’ back is that I get a chance to rework it,” Pink says. “The timeframe is very limited (the first time) so you make choices and you know that when it comes back next time you’ll get to finish it. That is the beauty of our profession: You get to reinvent yourself and it’s constantly evolving.” 

One of the hallmarks of Pink’s tenure at the Milwaukee Ballet is an increased emphasis on the company as storytellers and actors, in addition to talented dancers. Pink says in all his ballets, his emphasis is on making sure all the choreography works in relation to the ever-evolving story.

This year, the title role of Cinderella will be danced by Luz San Miguel, while the prince will be performed by Alexandre Ferreira (Annia Hidalgo and Davit Hovhannisyan will take the roles for matinees).

As for Cinderella’s stepsisters, Pink says it’s a little-known tradition that the roles are often played by men when danced to Prokofiev’s score. Patrick Howel and Timothy O’Donnell have the roles in this year’s production, and Pink says the duo are providing the studio with many hours of laughter already in rehearsal. 

“Cinderella is perhaps one of the most classic fairy tales imaginable, with its enchanted pumpkins, sparkling carriages and glass slippers. But Pink says it’s important that there’s always more than meets the eye when translating folk tales into fine art and theatre.

“By the nature of its title, people assume (‘Cinderella’) is a fairy story for little children, in particular little girls,” says Pink. “But at the same time Cinderella is possibly one of the oldest folk tales around, (and) it deals with underlying themes like abandonment and loss and, in some respects, child abuse.” 

To help Cinderella wade through the darker underlying themes of her story, Pink has added the role of Jack, a houseboy who serves as Cinderella’s guardian angel, who will be danced by Marc Petrocci.

While Pink keeps his eyes on the stage, he also has his ears on Prokofiev’s score, which he says is as much part of telling the story as his dancers’ work.

“When Prokofiev wrote the score, unlike ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ he really wanted to tell the story, so the music for this is really narrative in as much as it is complex,” explains Pink. “The scenes are written as if they’re narrative scenes. The riddle for me was to spend time deciphering what I thought he was saying with the music.”

With the ballet’s long-standing reputation for fine classical dance, amid dazzling period costuming and engaging set design, Pink says this year’s production of Cinderella at the Milwaukee Ballet will not disappoint. “The main thing, it’s about integrity and innovation,” he says. “What is innovation? We’re not inventing anything new, it’s about how we are putting it all together.”

ON STAGE

“Cinderella” runs May 14 to 17 at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings, with 1:30 p.m. matinees Saturday and Sunday afternoons. Tickets are $32-$97 and can be ordered at 414-902-2103 or milwaukeeballet.org.

‘Cinderella’

Skylight Music Theatre kicks off its season with a retelling of Cinderella that’s quite unlike the Disney version — Rossini’s opera La Cenerentola (Cinderella), sung in English. Rossini’s version nixes the fairy godmother in place of a wise counselor. But it retains the fairy tale’s magic in its music and, in the Skylight’s production, in its costumes, designed by New York fashion designer César Galindo (full story here).

At the Broadway Theatre Center, 158 N. Broadway. Tickets range from $22.50 to $65. Ring 414-291-7800 or visit skylightmusictheatre.org.

Sept. 19 to Oct. 5



In Skylight’s ‘Cinderella,’ couture makes the character

Fashion takes center stage in Skylight Music Theatre’s production of Gioachino Rossini’s La Cenerentola (Cinderella).

Couture designer Cesar Galindo, whose CZAR line of dresses was warmly received earlier this month at New York Fashion Week, is the costumer responsible for this fashion-forward production of the most popular operatic rendition of the Cinderella myth. Galindo also has designed for Dolce & Gabbana and Calvin Klein.

A Houston native who began by designing corsets and period costumes for the Miami City Ballet and the Houston Grand Opera, Galindo is a personal friend of Skylight artistic director Viswa Subbaraman. The pair had wanted to work together for some time and La Cenerentola, recast as a 21st-century fairytale, was the perfect vehicle, Galindo says.

“The first thing that came to mind was the ball scene, which as a designer was an exciting thing for me,” Galindo notes. The resulting scene is largely inspired, he adds, by Truman Capote’s infamous Black and White Ball.

In 1966, when Capote was at the height of his fame and financial success following the publication of In Cold Blood, the out author finally was able to throw the type of party he felt would attract the socialites he was trying to court. The result was the Black and White Ball, a masquerade held at New York City’s Plaza Hotel in honor of Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham.

The event, on which Capote spent an estimated $16,000 (more than $113,000 in today’s dollars), became the benchmark for New York social events for years to come. 

In La Cenerentola, the Capote-inspired ball scene becomes a dramatic monochromatic moment in a show Galindo otherwise describes as a Technicolor riot of excess. 

At the center of that excess are Clorinda (Erin Sura) and Tisbe (Kristen DiNinno), the two wicked stepsisters. They suffer from a hoarding disorder and an obsession with wearing the latest fashions — often all at once and regardless of pattern or color palette. They also smoke and drink gratuitously throughout the performance, which Galindo says bears testament to their moral weakness.

“We were very ‘AbFab’ when it came to the sisters,” says Galindo, referring to the 1990s BBC sitcom Absolutely Fabulous starring Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French. “This is, after all, an adult take on Cinderella.”

Rather than a wicked stepmother, Rossini’s version features Don Magnifico (Andy Pappas), a wicked stepfather whose wardrobe follows a level of excess as well, largely in how poorly it fits. He is rarely seen without a cigar in his mouth.

The wardrobes for the Cinderella character Angelina (Sishel Claverie) and the prince Don Ramiro (Luke Grooms) follow a deliberately different color palette, one that’s more tempered, clean and “preppie,” Galindo says. Their more conventional wardrobes, which reflect the characters’ virtue, are the opposite of the sisters’ gaudy couture.

“Angelina is a simple girl that we’ve dressed in a simple pastel palette that’s very Ralph Lauren,” Galindo says.

The home in which the characters interact contains many archive pieces from Galindo’s own studio. Ramshackle walls are styled to represent the characters’ moral decay. It’s a set deliberately at odds with the costumes, which are “very couture, glam and over the top,” the designer says.

Galindo may be better known for his dress designs than his costumes, but he says he enjoys theater work — even though it requires a more collaborative approach. “You have to learn how to work together,” he says. “After all, there is a show to be had and that’s everyone’s first priority.”

On stage

Skylight Music Theatre’s season-opening production of Rossini’s La Cenerentola runs Sept. 19-Oct. 5 in the Broadway Theatre Center’s Cabot Theatre. For more information visit skylightmusictheatre.org.

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Milwaukee, Madison companies embrace Cinderella’s feminine journey this season

Filmmaker Walt Disney was fond of rewriting literary history, making it more palatable for a post-World War II, white-bread America. The 1950 animated film version of Cinderella may have been his most questionable revision.

The popular folk tale can trace its roots back to the first century B.C. A young girl, fallen on hard times and pressed into demeaning servitude, perseveres against unspeakable odds. Through determination and virtue, she rises to a spectacular level of happiness. It’s a heroine’s journey that resonates in the hearts and minds of many cultures.

Then there’s Disney’s version, where all it takes is a little magic, a beautiful gown, a stylish coiffure and the requisite handsome prince to whisk Cinderella from a life of drudgery to a stunning palace that clearly never requires cleaning.

The magical scenario of salvation through a knight in shining armor enjoys enduring popularity. But isn’t there something inherently wrong with a myth that rewards a young woman’s obedience and beauty rather than her fortitude, strength and human right to happiness?

Milwaukee and Madison theatergoers will have a chance to untangle the taffeta of the Cinderella myth during a season that explores three distinct interpretations of the character.

Milwaukee’s Skylight Music Theatre takes the lead on Sept. 19 with its season-opening production of Gioachino Rossini’s La Cenerentola, the most popular of several operatic versions of the Cinderella story. On March 28, Madison Ballet mounts the first of three performances of Cinderella. And on May 14, Milwaukee Ballet offers its version of the tale danced to Sergei Prokofiev’s famous score.

What’s behind the eternal appeal of this simple tale? That depends on the version being told, says Viswa Subbaraman, Skylight’s artistic director and music director for the Rossini opera.

“What I like about Rossini’s version is that Cinderella is a much stronger person than she is often portrayed,” says Subbaraman, who has scheduled an entire season of fairy tales and fantasies at the Skylight. “She’s a strong woman who knows herself, and it’s always driven me nuts that she wasn’t portrayed that way in the Disney version.”

Subbaraman has updated the 1817 opera to the present day and employed the talents of New York costume designer and personal friend Cesar Galindo to create a striking contrast between Angelina (the Cinderella character), her wicked stepsisters and, in this version, a wicked stepfather. In this production, clothes make the heroine — and the hero. Virtue and honor, in the guise of clean lines and a “preppie” look, triumph over evil, represented largely by gross consumption and loud, ill-fitting clothes.

Rossini’s Cinderella is diplomatic, honorable and, despite her servitude, the most self-realized of the opera’s characters. In the end she wins out largely because of her virtuous nature, Subbaraman says.

“The performance closes with a strong woman character singing a huge solo,” he says. “It was a pretty revolutionary opera for its day.”

Rossini’s interpretation of the Cinderella character is more in keeping with the traditional story than Disney’s, according to Robin Mello, professor of theater at UWM’s Peck School of the Arts. 

“It’s a story of a hard worker who endures an oppressive system and gets rewarded in the end,” says Mello, who examined the Cinderella myth as part of her doctoral dissertation. “That doesn’t often happen in real life, which makes Cinderella the perfect story of hope and essential for surviving the human condition.”

The Cinderella myth can also be seen as the female counterpart to the hero’s journey, which was explored in-depth by the late Joseph Campbell and is a prevalent theme in literature, theater and film. Heroes have to find the right path and maybe slay a dragon along the path to becoming fully realized. As a feminine equivalent to what is ultimately a masculine story, Cinderella must operate differently, Mello says.

“The masculine hero must undertake his journey to discover his identity,” Mello says. “Cinderella arrives with an identity and has to figure out what to do with what she’s got in order to succeed.”

The Cinderella myth’s strength lies in the incorporation of archetypes identified by Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, the founder of analytical psychology. The animus and anima — the male and female equivalent of the self — and the shadow, which represents the nature of evil, play critical roles in the tale, Mello says.

“The characters of the fairy godmother and wicked stepmother divide the divine into benevolence and evil,” she explains. “The only problem with leaning too heavily on Freud, Jung and Campbell is that they created this masculine way of looking at a story, but never accounted for the feminine experience.”

At its heart, Cinderella is a heroine’s story. The prince plays a critical role that goes beyond merely saving a damsel in distress, Mello says. The Greek concept of hiero gamos — “holy marriage” — is part of the myth. The concept refers to a critical union that’s created for the greater good. In many versions of the Cinderella myth, hiero gamos is attained through the union of Cinderella and her prince.

Using Cinderella’s virtue and triumph for the greater good of the community plays a role in many cultural retellings of the tale, Mello says. In the German version, she’s given land and makes it very prosperous. In the Chinese version, she dies but comes back as a benevolent being who helps her village and her people regain their harmony. 

“There are lots of different endings, but they all embrace the concept that all the upset and hatred and oppression has been made right,” Mello says. 

Milwaukee Ballet’s version of Cinderella next spring takes a more fanciful approach while still following earlier versions of the tale. Prokofiev’s score largely dictates the action, but the story has an intellectuality that appeals to the ballet’s artistic director Michael Pink, who created an original ballet around the narrative.

The ballet opens with Cinderella at the gravesite of her mother. A dove that appears in a tree over the grave, then reappears and drops autumn leaves on Cinderella when she most needs assistance, represents the mother’s spirit. 

While the dove adds a spiritual dimension to the story, the wicked stepsisters, danced by men in drag, add a raucous comic dimension to the performance.

“‘A cock in a frock’ is great English musical tradition,” says Pink, a himself a Brit who once played just such a role.

Even though there will be an ample supply of taffeta, Pink’s Cinderella also is about a young woman who comes into her own. Being saved by Prince Charming is not the lesson that audiences are meant to learn. Instead, Pink wants to present the message that kindness and virtue are the most effective ways to resolve conflict.

“Cinderella is a powerful creature because she has the skill to forgive, which triumphs over everyone else and gives her strength,” Pink says.

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