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Nashville Ballet offers a fresh and intriguing take on Prokofiev's classic ballet

If the Shoe Fits

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Nashville Ballet's 2011-12 season opens this weekend with Cinderella, Sergei Prokofiev's musical dramatization of the fairy tale favorite, first presented by the Bolshoi Ballet in 1945. Though artistic director Paul Vasterling has staged excerpts from Cinderella in the past, this is his first time mounting the entire piece with all of his own original choreography. 

Prokofiev's music includes some surprisingly tense waltzes, whose dissonances and intricate melody lines might seem incongruous with the romance of such a familiar story — and one told so famously in an enduring Walt Disney animated feature from 1950. Yet Prokofiev was also a playful craftsman, capable of wry comedy and irony, and it is those qualities that have spurred on Vasterling's creative storytelling.

"I'm freely interpreting the music," Vasterling says, "based on my reading of various versions of the Cinderella story, including from Asia and Europe."

That means that Vasterling's Cinderella isn't quite the passive doormat we've come to expect. "She's more of an assertive character in the original story," he says. "In the Disney version she's perceived as a victim of circumstances. We've returned to that original persona. Our Cinderella is more of a participant in her fate."

Of course, the basic plot elements remain intact, as Cinderella deals with the cruelty of her stepmother and unpleasant stepsisters. Meanwhile, a fairy godmother helps our heroine prepare for her big evening at the palace ball.  

Yet it's the stepsisters who draw special focus in Vasterling's version. "There is a long tradition of men playing those roles," he says. "And because Prokofiev wrote the music very broadly — it's almost clownish — that's why I decided to use men." 

Mark Allyn Nimmo and Eddie Mikrut don the pointe shoes and accept the mantle of buffoonery in their elaborate cross-dressing gig. As they demonstrated in a recent rehearsal, the results are funny indeed.

"The pointe shoe is the magical symbolic element here," Vasterling says. "That's what separates ballet from other kinds of dance, and pointe work is the domain of female dancers. Yet our stepsisters are not pretty on pointe, but instead comical."

The more sympathetic and feminine Cinderella begins the ballet barefoot, but eventually gains her footwear and finds love. The title role is danced by the remarkable Sadie Bo Harris, a gifted and expressive artist who in recent years has established herself as the company's leading lady. Harris appears as fit and lovely as ever entering the new season, and her artful recitation of the Cinderella role is engagingly light and airy. Meanwhile, Jon Upleger's command of the Prince role combines elegance with strength while also nodding to Vasterling's whimsical direction.

Other standout performers include Mollie Sansone and Kayla Rowser as two of the seasonal fairies, plus Christine Rennie as the fairy godmother and Caylan Cheadle as the stepmother.  

With the addition of a youth cast — including some adorable youngsters portraying snow angels, bumblebees and other fanciful creatures — Vasterling's ensemble numbers about 40 in all. Guest music director and conductor Nathan Fifield will lead the Nashville Symphony.

The remainder of the ballet's season is filled with programs both traditional and diverse, beginning with the Dec. 9-18 presentation of the Nutcracker. Now in its fourth year, Vasterling's popular Nashville-themed version of the timeless Tchaikovsky piece remains essentially intact with a few modifications. 

"When we first produced it in 2008, we had a plan over time to augment it in various ways," Vasterling says. "This time we are working with an illusionist, Drew Thomas, who is helping us rethink how we present Drosselmeyer's magic." The Orlando-based Thomas has performed countless shows and was a finalist on America's Got Talent.

The ballet's winter program (Feb. 10-12) is a mixed rep selection featuring Salsa Dreams — ballet with Latin dance to the accompaniment of live music performed by Lalo Davila y Amigos. Also on the bill is Aaron Copland's classic Wild West-inspired Billy the Kid (with Vasterling re-creating  Eugene Loring's original 1938 choreography) and Cryin' Out, featuring the choreography of Austin-based Gina Patterson and live music from versatile singer-songwriter Gary Nicholson, who's penned tunes recorded by Bonnie Raitt, Vince Gill, the Dixie Chicks and others. Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf returns for a stand-alone, family–friendly winter engagement on Feb. 11. 

The spring series (April 27-29) is ambitious, as the company mounts two major Stravinsky pieces, Rite of Spring and Firebird, together for the first time and with live music provided by the Nashville Symphony. Choreography for Rite is based on revisions created by the late Salvatore Aiello, while Vasterling's original choreography accompanies Firebird

The season concludes with the 2012 edition of Emergence (May 17), the company's ongoing program providing opportunities for original dance to interact with new music, film and other elements. Company dancer and developing choreographer Christopher Stuart is among the emerging artists.  

Visit nashvilleballet.com for tickets and scheduling information.

Good witchcraft

No, you can't see Kristin Chenoweth in the original Broadway cast of Wicked — though if time travel becomes available, that'll make our list. But you can see Wicked, currently packing TPAC through Nov. 6 in a touring production of extraordinary polish and panache. And for one night only, you can see Chenoweth, one of the great Broadway stars of the past two decades, with her star power at full wattage.

The Tony- and Emmy-winning actor (who just released a Nashville-recorded country album, Some Lessons Learned) is the featured entertainment for this weekend's Fest de Ville Gala, TPAC's lavish annual fundraiser. This year's benefit, honoring Tim McGraw and Ted Welch, takes place 6:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 29, at a War Memorial Auditorium decked out in spooky Addams Family finery. The evening includes cocktails, dinner, a silent auction and entertainment through 9 p.m.

Tickets are $450 — money that helps TPAC deliver attractions like Wicked. For an invitation, call 687-4300. JIM RIDLEY

 Email arts@nashvillescene.com.

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