If you ask local dance fans to name their favorite ballets in recent years, their answer will undoubtedly include the 2008 U.S. premiere of modern French choreographer Jean-Christophe Maillot’s Roméo et Juliette at Pacific Northwest Ballet (PNB).
The work is masterful and sublime, with its sparse sets and its unparalleled portrayal of love in all its incarnations, from flirtatious first looks to full-blown ecstasy. Seriously. Mention Maillot to a balletomane and you’re apt to elicit a from-the-gut swoon.
PNB artistic director Peter Boal admires Maillot’s way of completely reinventing a well-known ballet, drilling deep into our emotional core. So when PNB unveils its second Maillot work in February, Cendrillon, his reimagining of Cinderella, don’t expect clichéd emotions, pumpkins turning into glass carriages, or mice suddenly becoming seamstresses. This Cinderella is a grande jeté away from being Disneyesque. No glass slipper, for example—in this very contemporary version, bare feet are dipped into a bowl of glitter.
“The way he’s laid out the ballet is very touching,” says Noelani Pantastico, who is something of a local expert on Maillot. After dancing in that legendary 2008 Roméo et Juliette, she spent seven years dancing with Maillot’s world-famous Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo, including a previous production of Cendrillon, before returning to PNB last year as a principal dancer.
Cendrillon opens with Cinderella in mourning, holding a dress that belonged to her late mother (who returns as the fairy godmother to watch over the young girl). The entire first act, Pantastico explains, embraces the notion of loss and grief from both the girl’s perspective and the father’s. The father has a much bigger role here than is typically found in other versions. “Cendrillon is not a cartoon. There’s a real person in there,” Pantastico says about a role with which she has fallen in love.
Though she’s glad to be back—at PNB and in Cendrillon—Pantastico doesn’t regret her time in Monte Carlo. “I wanted to make a change,” she explains. “I was feeling a bit lost.” She admits she was a good dancer when she left Seattle, but she feels that under Maillot’s instruction, she’s emerged into a more thoughtful dancer—an actual artist.
Image by: Marie-Laure Briane, courtesy of Les Ballets de Monte Carlo
Maillot’s take on the Cinderella story has no pumpkins or mice, but it does have a Tim Burton-esque flair
“There’s so much depth in his work,” she says. And for a dancer, it’s always about finding the intention behind his steps. That isn’t always easy to do, especially when the character leaves you cold—as Cendrillon did, at first, for Pantastico. “I thought she was flat,” she says. “I thought she didn’t dance very much. I had some terrible assumptions.” But then Pantastico recognized the power in the look and feel of the ballet: a character who daydreams, who wears a simple brown dress, hair loose, barefoot throughout to show how grounded and humble she really is.
In Cendrillon, Cinderella evolves from being a tormented girl to living happily ever after with her prince. Her stepsisters, meanwhile, are self-absorbed, wrapped in bandages because they’re recovering from plastic surgery. The stepmother is racy. The prince is bawdy and appears to have a serious foot fetish. The fairy godmother is sleek and shimmery, with a coiled hairdo and a skirt Tim Burton would appreciate. (The set, lighting and costume design are all by the same team that produced Roméo et Juliette.)
“I’m really looking forward to the public’s reaction,” Boal says. “Cendrillon is very dear to Noe. She has lived and breathed this work for countless rehearsals and performances over many years. To see an artist of Noe’s caliber in a signature role will be a rare treat for all of us.”
There’s no question PNB has forged ahead into more contemporary territory under Boal’s tenure. Maillot’s Roméo et Juliette, he says, completely broke the mold for Seattle and exceeded projected ticket sales. It’s adored by audiences every time it’s performed. Boal hopes audiences take to this new Maillot production in the same way. Says Pantastico about Cendrillon, “It is Maillot’s best work.”
Pacific Northwest Ballet, February 3–February 12, pnb.org