All that Cinderella jazz Royal Winnipeg Ballet revives the classic ballet with a 1950s setting and music from Ron Paley’s Big Band
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There’s a wicked stepmother and a fairy godmother. There’s a beautiful girl worked to the bone, a handsome man waiting for her at a ball and a spell that ends when the clock strikes midnight.
Val Caniparoli’s A Cinderella Story
Royal Winnipeg Ballet
• Wednesday to Sunday, Centennial Concert Hall
• Tickets: $39.04-$130.04 at rwb.org
You might think you know this story. But Val Caniparoli’s A Cinderella Story — a Royal Winnipeg Ballet fan favourite that returns to the Centennial Concert Hall this week — isn’t the usual glass-slipper take on a well-known fairy tale. This whiz-bang rendition is inspired by the groundbreaking 1957 Rodgers and Hammerstein live television musical starring Julie Andrews.
Now, here’s where things get a little meta: Caniparoli’s ballet is actually set in the 1950s, with retro costumes, a dance vocabulary that includes jazz and tap, and themes from Richard Rodgers’ songbook as arranged for a live jazz orchestra by Winnipeg’s best-known big bandleader, Ron Paley.
In fact, when André Lewis, artistic director of the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, approached Caniparoli about choreographing a Cinderella ballet for the company in the early 2000s, he only had one stipulation: not Sergei Prokofiev’s. The Russian ballet, which premièred in 1945, is beautiful, no question, but Lewis wanted something fresh. Caniparoli was just the man to deliver.
“I’m one for a challenge — I love challenges,” Caniparoli says via Zoom from San Francisco, where he’s been a member of the San Francisco Ballet since 1973 and still performs as principal character dancer. “I thought it would be great.”
As it happened, around this time, Caniparoli was doing some choreography for a New York City gala celebrating the work of Rodgers. That’s when it clicked: “Wait a minute, Cinderella, Rodgers and Hammerstein,” Caniparoli says. “That’s how it started.”
Caniparoli was worried that getting the rights to the songbook was going to be a bit of an uphill battle, as these things sometimes are. But, in the early 2000s, the Rodgers estate was very open to having his music reimagined by other artists — which is how Gwen Stefani came to yodel on her Sound of Music-sampling 2006 song Wind It Up, which came out two years after A Cinderella Story made its world première with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet in October 2004.
“By the time I got to them, they were like, ‘Oh, what a great idea,’” Caniparoli says.
The next order of business was finding someone who could arrange the songs into blues and jazz. “And that’s where Ron Paley came in,” Caniparoli says. “It was a collaboration on every level.”
Paley, for his part, says that it was Rodgers’ melodies that attracted him to this project. “The songs are so beautiful,” he says. “They leave room for development when arranging.”
The Ron Paley Big Band will provide the live score at this week’s run of shows, and performing A Cinderella Story, nearly 20 years on, still gives them a thrill. “We all love playing it,” Paley says of the music after a spirited Friday afternoon rehearsal (as a trio, mind you, since his 22-member-strong jazz ensemble can’t fit in an RWB studio). “We love the music, we love the songs, and the chance to work with the dancers, it’s amazing.”
This is the first time that RWB second soloist Stephan Azulay has performed in A Cinderella Story — he’ll be dancing in the role of Bob, our Prince Charming figure, alternating with fellow second soloist Liam Caines — and he’s been having, to stay on theme, a ball in rehearsal.
“Honestly, it’s just fun to dance,” Azulay says of the ballet. “We’ve had Ron in the studio the last couple of weeks and even just with him, it was a crazy burst of energy. And then he brought in two more, the drummer and the bassist, and, I don’t know, I haven’t felt something like this in a while.”
For soloist Elizabeth Lamont, who will be dancing in the role of Nancy, our Cinderella — alternating with principal dancer Alanna McAdie — A Cinderella Story is a significant ballet in her career.
“It was the first show I watched the company do when I came to the school,” she says. “I remember watching the company and thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I love their repertoire. It’s such a cool ballet, with a big band and good story everyone knows.” This is her second time performing it in the company, though she was brought in to a touring production to fill in for an injured dancer while she was still a student. “It’s one of my favourite ballets,” she says.
Another fairy-tale connection: Frederick Ashton’s version of Cinderella, as performed by the National Ballet of Canada, was the very first ballet Lamont saw, when she was just four years old.
“They had a draw and I got to go up onstage and meet the prima ballerina and take her pointe shoes and take a bow with her,” Lamont says. “Literally, that’s what sparked my love of ballet. I remember feeling like, ‘Oh, I feel alive on stage and this is how she feels every night.’” To pay that feeling forward, the RWB will be doing something similar at this week’s shows: on Friday and Saturday a lucky child will be chosen to come backstage to meet Lamont or McAdie. “It’ll be full circle,” Lamont says.
The ballet allows the company to flex other creative muscles, owing to the addition of jazz and tap in the choreography. “But no doubt about it, it is a classically based ballet,” Caniparoli says. “It’s on pointe, as well. It’s a classical vocabulary with influences from other genres.”
That the RWB is still performing A Cinderella Story nearly 20 years after it debuted is meaningful to him, especially since some of the dancers who originated the roles — such as RWB ballet master Jaime Vargas — are now leading a new generation of dancers.
“I always say ballet companies are at a disadvantage because we’re supposed to be geniuses right away,” Caniparoli says. Indeed, there are no previews, no road tests, no two-week tech rehearsals. “So if you’re lucky enough for it to survive that opening night, that’s when the work starts. That’s when the magic happens. And so, 20 years, it’s still to me fresh because we keep working on it and making better and better and better.”
Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and co-host of the paper's local culture podcast, Bury the Lede.
Updated on Tuesday, May 10, 2022 8:50 PM CDT: Changes o to 0 in 2000s
Updated on Wednesday, May 11, 2022 6:22 AM CDT: Corrects dates show is on