McCaw Hall was packed Friday night for the opening of Pacific Northwest Ballet’s 2012-13 season: not just for Cinderella (at McCaw Hall through September 30), but for a chance to see ballerina Patricia Barker on stage once more. Barker, who retired in 2007 after a 26-year career with the company, came back to act as Ringmaster in Jerome Robbins’ “Circus Polka.”
This little confection includes 48 child dancers from the PNB School, directed by the Ringmaster to music by Stravinsky, and they finish up in whatever formation fits the occasion. In this case, they arranged themselves, seemingly miraculously, into the number 40, for PNB’s 40th season.
All through this 40th year, retired dancers will come back for cameo appearances and in a few cases, a major one. Among these, Lucien Postlewaite and Noelani Pantastico return from Les Ballets de Monte Carlo in January to dance Roméo et Juliette again. Those who did not have the good fortune to see them dance this in 2008 should not miss this extraordinary experience.
Cinderella, choreographed by Kent Stowell to music of Prokofiev, with set designs by Tony Straiges, costumes by Martin Pakledinaz and lighting by Randall G. Chiarelli, had its debut here in 1994. It is a merging of superb costuming (these performances of Cinderella are being dedicated to the memory of Pakledinaz, who died this summer) and imaginative lighting, a couple of excellent sets with some seemingly disjointed parts, and workmanlike choreography with some fine staging. However, the whole works together as a sumptuous spectacle to gorgeous music.
Perhaps Stowell’s finest contribution is his first scene with the contrast between the sweet-natured Cinderella, and the two stepsisters who are rude, selfish, awkward and very funny, plus the parents and the parade of dressmakers, milliner, dancing master and so on who come to prepare the sisters for the ball. It’s lively and clever, setting the tone for what is to come.
Stowell created a stepsister role in 1994 for Marisa Albee, then a company soloist, who returned to reprise her role Friday. Since her retirement in 1998 she has been on the PNB School faculty but has clearly maintained her flexibility and timing. To spoof your career skills well, you need to be very good at them, and she and current corps member Jessika Anspach gave delightful performances Friday.
The glory of the evening, though, must go to Carla Körbes as Cinderella. Her dancing seemed light as thistledown and effortlessly balanced as she seemed to float through her role. With tiny motions of her head or body, she conveyed her character as kind and warm, sometimes sad, often shy, yet clearly a girl of character and strength. She and her partner, Karel Cruz as the Prince, have that close rapport with each other which creates memorable duets.
Straiges sets the second scene outside a castle built over water in gloomy dusk, where the fairy godmother, Carrie Imler, and her fairy and children attendants dance. Pakledinaz’ costumes redeem this scene from a great deal of choreographic sameness. The dancers are in differently-shaded layers of blues, with two of four seasons in blue, one in raspberry and one in spring greens, and godmother in sparkling lavender. These colors shimmer and shift with movement in the light. Imler and the four season soloists acquitted themselves well, reminding me how deep this company is.
The sumptuous palace with the ballroom dancers all in scarlet gave more of this reminder, with the added enjoyment of a jester, Jonathan Porretta, in a role which suits him perfectly. With wonderful antics he runs interference to keep the two stepsisters and their mother away from the Prince. A long sequence of fast turns embellished by a little leap in the center, brought roars from the house for his achievement. One oddity in the scenery had the long allée of trees and forest in view behind the ballroom suddenly peopled with large marble sculptures floating around in the trees. It was hard to know what these symbolized.
It was in this scene that one could see the seamless partnering of Cruz and Korbes as, alone on the stage, they dance together and reach heights of expressively flowing movement.
In the remaining performances there will be different dancers taking the different roles, and their Cinderellas and Princes, their godmothers, stepsisters and jesters will each be different, but one of the pleasures of this production is the room for dancers to create their own characters, while Prokofiev’s music under the deft baton of Emil de Cou and the delectable eye candy will continue.