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Monday October 2, 2006

Joffrey to be first American company to perform Ashton's 'Cinderella'

CHICAGO (AP) - Wendy Ellis Somes is explaining to a ballerina portraying the Summer Fairy in "Cinderella'' how to capture the languid essence of her solo: Think of how caramel would react on a steamy Chicago day, she suggests. 

During her career with Britian's Royal Ballet, Somes danced everything from the tiny part of a page to the title role of the girl who loses her slipper in Frederick Ashton's lavish full-length version of the fairy tale, set to a score by Sergei Prokofiev. 

Now Somes is in Chicago coaching the Joffrey Ballet, which will become the first American company to perform Ashton's work when "Cinderella'' opens Wednesday at the Auditorium Theater. It's the company's biggest production ever, with a cast of 50 dancers plus 25 children and a budget of more than $1.5 million (euro1.2 million). 

"They're very excited because it's a very challenging ballet for them ... and I mean that from Cinderella to the smallest role in the corps de ballet,'' Somes said in a recent interview following her rehearsal with four dancers, each playing a different seasonal fairy. 

"It's all hard - really hard dancing. And that is quite unusual in big ballets today. There is a lot of sort of milling around, and not exactly doing steps.'' 

Ashton, a contemporary of George Balanchine, is considered one of the great classical choreographers of the 20th century, known for his lyricism and musicalilty. His other landmark ballets include "The Dream,'' "La Fille mal Gardee'' and "Birthday Offering.'' 

Ashton died in 1988, and he left his ballets to friends, dancers and relatives. He willed the rights to "Cinderella'' to Michael Somes, a frequent partner of Margot Fonteyn who created the role of the Prince when The Royal Ballet debuted "Cinderella'' in 1948. When Somes died, he left the ballet to his wife, Wendy Ellis Somes. 

Petite and energetic, with her dark hair pinned on top of her head in a casual bun, Somes said other companies in the United States have expressed interest in performing Ashton's "Cinderella.'' Robert Joffrey even hoped to make it happen for his namesake company before his death in 1988. 

But it's a major undertaking, requiring a huge cast and glorious costumes and sets. Somes decided to grant the rights to the Joffrey after coming over from England two years ago to see the company perform. She appreciated how the company felt like a family and the quality of its dancers and productions. 

"I felt comfortable. I felt yes - This is the right time to do it,'' she said. "It just felt right. A gut feeling.'' And back at the Joffrey, they felt a production of Ashton's "Cinderella'' was perfect for its two-season celebration of the 50th anniversary of the company's founding by Robert Joffrey and Gerald Arpino. 

Not only had Robert Joffrey always hoped to have his company perform the ballet, the Joffrey was offered the chance to buy "Cinderella'' sets and costumes from the Dutch National Ballet - saving it the expense and time of creating them from scratch. 

And as a special treat, the Joffrey has arranged for two of the company's big stars from the 1970s _ Christian Holder and Gary Chryst _ to return and dance the roles of the Ugly Stepsisters, portrayed in Ashton's version by men in 2 1/2-inch (6 1/2-centimeter) high heels, towering wigs, heavy makeup and outlandish dresses. (Ashton played the younger stepsister himself.) Holder and Chryst said Joffrey actually mentioned to them once in the 1970s that he could envision them as the stepsisters. It was unusual, they said, because he didn't usually talk to dancers about what he had in mind for them. 

Decades later, they were both in Chicago to see a Joffrey performance when they heard about the company's interest in "Cinderella.'' When they mentioned what Robert Joffrey had told them decades ago, the company's management knew they'd found their ugly stepsisters. 

"And ironically enough, I think now we're the right age and the right experience to actually do it,'' Chryst said. "We would have been OK then,'' Holder said. "But not as good as now.'' 

Chryst and Holder both have busy, successful careers post-Joffrey. Holder is a choreographer, costume designer, writer and dance teacher. Chryst is a choreographer who has restaged choreography for the revival of the musical "Chicago'' for productions around the world. 

But neither had any doubt that putting their work on hold to appear in "Cinderella'' was the right thing to do. 

They've known each other for 40 years, and as they sit on a sofa in a Joffrey office studio - both rotating their ankles to warm them up for an upcoming rehearsal and those high heels - they demonstrate how much thought they've given to the characters that most people view as comic relief. 

"The villains are sometimes more fun. Not that you play them as being mean. You like them. I mean, I like them. You have to find why they make these decisions. They believe in what they do. They believe they're right,'' said Chryst, who has decided his younger stepsister is jealous when Cinderella becomes the new baby of the family. 

As for Holder's stepsister: "She's bossy, she's sadistic, she's eager to find a mate - she has a healthy appetite in that regard - she's domineering. She's not a well woman at all,'' he said with a laugh. 

Just down the hallway, inside the offices of Joffrey associate artistic directors, Cameron Basden and Adam Sklute, there seems to be a sense of wonder that the company is within days of performing a piece that its founder long wanted to do, during an anniversary season, and with two former Joffrey stars returning to the stage. 

"It's kind of a fairy tale story in itself,'' Basden said, "how it all came together.''-AP