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A Fairy-Tale Year

Ballet Tucson ends its season with 'Cinderella'—before looking to 2012-2013

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Ballet Tucson's new leading man will dance with the company's prima ballerina in Cinderella this weekend.

Stuart Lauer, taking on the role of the Prince for the first time, will partner with Jenna Johnson, who's reprising her Cinderella from 2008.

"Stuart has come a very long way in five seasons with us," says artistic director Mary Beth Cabana. "He's gone from a raw talent to a refined dancer."

The young dancer gave a marvelous performance in the troupe's Dance and Dessert concert in March; a highlight was his duet with his real-life bride, dancer Elise Vitso, in an excerpt from Antony Tudor's "The Leaves Are Falling."

For Cinderella, the troupe's artistic associates, Amanda McKerrow and John Gardner, have choreographed a new duet for him to dance with Johnson.

"It's a beautiful pas de deux," Cabana says. "It's when Cinderella arrives at the ball, and she and the Prince see each other for the first time. Everyone else disappears, and they fall in love."

The two previous versions of the company's Cinderella, choreographed by Chieko Imada, Mark Schneider and Cabana, had a shorter version of that magical moment, she says. "We've elaborated it."

The three first created their Cinderella in 2003, and still get credit for the bulk of the choreography. Though the new McKerrow-Gardner pas de deux is a major addition, the troupe's leaders have tweaked the ballet each time they've presented it.

"It's nice we can continue to develop Cinderella," Cabana says. "We enjoy working on it, rehearsing it. It's better for the audience, better for the dancers."

Daniel Precup—Johnson's husband—danced the Prince to her Cinderella on the last go-round. A member of the company since it turned pro in 2004, and before that a dancer for Oakland Ballet and the Oleg Danovski Ballet Theater in Europe, Precup has frequently partnered with his wife. Ceding that place to Lauer, he's now moved on to character roles. (He's also begun choreographing; his sleek new "Bolero" in Dance and Dessert was both imaginative and startling.)

Precup will dance a comic part this time, joining Daniel Salvador as an evil Stepsister. Men traditionally take on the roles of the homely young women who torment the beauteous Cinderella; since Precup is the tallest male dancer in the company, and Salvador the shortest, Cabana notes, they make a humorous Mutt and Jeff pair.

Deanna Doncsecz, a vivid dancer who's also one of the company's best actors, is the wicked Stepmother.

"She really enjoys doing these parts," Cabana says. "Cinderella has all these great character parts, with great physical comedy."

Megan Terry plays the Fairy Godmother. The aptly named Emily Speed has the part of the Time Fairy, who alerts Cinderella via a series of rapid turns that the clock is striking midnight—and that she's about to lose her finery. Vitso gets a solo as a Spanish dancer, glimpsed by the Prince when he searches the world for the woman who rushed off and left her glass slipper behind. Nadia Ali dances an Arabian woman he also sees on his tour.

The French fairy tale of the oppressed cinder-wench was first published by Charles Perrault in the late 17th century. By the early 19th century, the story had made its way onto ballet stages, set to various musical compositions. Since the Bolshoi Ballet premiered a Cinderella set to Prokofiev in 1945, his score has been the standard.

Performed on the big stage at Centennial Hall, the Ballet Tucson's family-friendly version will feature nearly 100 dancers dancing to the familiar Prokofiev music. (The company uses a recording.) Besides the 28 company dancers and apprentices, there will be some 65 child and teen dancers from the troupe's school, Ballet Arts.

Blue and gold are the principal colors in the sets and costumes, a happy accident resulting from Cabana's discovery of cobalt-blue ball gowns in the Los Angeles garment district back in 2003.

"I found these gowns encrusted with iridescent sequins," she says. "We adapted them for dance, and they affected the whole ballroom design. That's how it goes sometimes. I love fabric, and I find a lot of inspiration in it."

The ballroom ladies and gentlemen are in varying shades of blue and gold, while Cinderella and the Prince are in matching powder blue. Johnson's tutu, worn with a golden cape and train, required "half a dozen people to work on it," Cabana says. "It has tons of crystals that needed to be sewed down securely."

Only the evil Steps deviate from the elegant color scheme. The Stepsisters wear the "most god-awful tacky stuff—Marie Antoinette wigs with birds attached, gowns in orange and fuchsia." The Stepmother has a golden spider web tracing across her black dress, reflecting her wickedness—and a big green spider pinned to her jacket drives home the point.

The scenery is equally elaborate. During the course of the three-act ballet, there are four different backdrops: the mansion where Cinderella lives with her harsh stepfamily, the magical garden where she's transformed from scullery maid into potential princess, the blue-and-gold ballroom in the Prince's castle, and a "celestial scene" where the happy ending takes place. Cabana is particularly proud of the pumpkin coach that actually rolls across the stage and takes Cinderella to the ball.

Typically, Ballet Tucson ends its season with a classic story ballet, but Cinderella will be the last one for a while. Next year, Ballet Tucson is putting its energies instead into the Tucson Desert Song Festival, an arts lollapalooza that is intended to bring "world-class vocalists" to town to collaborate with local arts organizations.

Ballet Tucson will partner with Chamber Music PLUS, a group that has pioneered a unique blend of drama and classical music. In a show called Passionately, Piazzolla!, about the famed tango composer, "We are going to be the dance component," Cabana says. "We're really excited about it."

Piazzolla, to be staged in February 2013, will take the place of the company's usual story ballet in May. But the rest of the season will follow the company's usual pattern.

The late October gala will feature an Agnes de Mille piece (1934's Three Virgins and a Devil), a first for the troupe. Christmas will bring The Nutcracker. The popular Dance and Dessert will be pushed back to April, a month after its usual March perch, to allow the dancers a respite after the song festival.

Cabana hopes that by the following season, the company will reinstate a fairy tale, perhaps upping the number of concerts to five. For now, she's happy that Ballet Tucson is surviving the Great Recession.

"It feels great," she says. "The cast is doing new things, shifting to other roles. The troupe has worked hard. We've had a really good year."

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