Slipper Magic

Behold the demi-caractère. It is technically a character role using classical steps but is recognizable as the guys who aren't the prince. Ben Stevenson's ballets are rife with them. Former dancer Parren Ballard stole the stage as Renfro in Dracula, every male dancer in Houston Ballet has taken turns in the numerous demi-roles in Stevenson's beloved The Nutcracker, and his quintessential Cinderella is no exception. The roles of the court jester and the ugly stepsisters (men en travesti) are key to what makes this ballet the most widely seen version of the rags-to-riches story.

Opening night of Cinderella found principals Phillip Broomhead and Dominic Walsh taking their turn as the ugly, and we do mean ugly, stepsisters in the classic fairy tale. Both men will, at various times during this run, take on the prince's robes, but to see them in these roles is to see their true versatility. Both are adept at the elastic mugging required of the stepsisters (almost a little too much so in the lengthy first act), and both make the sisters' disastrous dancing in Act II look comically easy, although it requires technique and no small amount of athleticism.

Soloist Mauricio Cañete seems bound to take over where Ballard left off, using every bit of energy in the jester's frantic dancing in Act II. And while he doesn't have the explosive leaps, he certainly has the flexibility, almost knocking down nearby dancers with those aerial Chinese splits. It's all just so much fun, along with the spectacular sets and gorgeous royal garb designed by David Walker. Besides being Stevenson's first full-length ballet, as well as his most widely produced (it is currently in the repertory of 20 companies), Cinderella is the pure essence of the Stevenson magic. Big show, big dazzle, side order of vaudeville.

On opening night, little girls dressed as princesses with tiny tiaras littered the theater. They gasped in wonder (even the adults applauded) at the special effects of the old hag's transformation into the beautiful fairy godmother, the pumpkin-cum-coach and, of course, Cinderella's unveiling as the belle of the ball. And there was dancing. Stevenson is at his best with big groups -- the ballroom scene bears that out with the swirling of couples and elegant lifts, all to the strains of one of Prokofiev's most recognizable waltzes.

Mireille Hassenboehler has truly grown into her role as principal and tempers her acting ability with elegant and lyrical dancing. She is delightful to watch, whether partnering a broom or being supported by Lucas Priolo. She is both sad and charming as a cinder-covered waif, then supremely elegant and gracious as the mysterious ballroom debutante. She now has both the technique and the poise to be a star.

On the other hand, Priolo still lacks the maturity of a Walsh or the explosiveness of former star Carlos Acosta in princely roles, but he doesn't really need them in Cinderella. The prince doesn't show until Act II and has little to do other than the ballroom grand pas de deux and the Act III wedding pas, which he knocks out solidly. The rest of the time he just looks damn good walking around.

Principal Julie Gumbinner shimmers as the Fairy Godmother, and Leticia Oliveira is a dark-haired little dynamo as the Autumn Fairy. One wants to fault Stevenson for not giving them and the lead lovers more to dance, but this Cinderella is about equal parts classicism and comedy, which is what makes it such a popular mainstream ballet and good introduction to dance.

Tony Tucci provides lustrous lighting, while the corps de ballet and even some academy students do their best to fill in the gaps in the crowd scenes. That may account for a lack of precision arms -- and those dead-looking mice have got to go. Whatever happened to just holding up a cage instead of swinging the stuffed critters by their tails? We know the story; we know they're mice.

For those missing the sounds of the striking Houston Symphony, it's worth the price of admission to hear Prokofiev played to perfection by the Houston Ballet Orchestra, conducted by the elegant Ermanno Florio. The fact that something's happening on stage as well makes this Cinderella pumpkin-perfect.

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Marene Gustin