Grand Rapids Ballet: Choreographer Bruce Wells’
artistic vision for ‘Cinderella’
by Adrienne Warber
“Cinderella” is a classic fairy tale, loved by both children and adults for generations. To bring the beloved story to life in dance requires paying homage to the romance, magic and pageantry of French author Charles Perrault’s tale. Grand Rapid Ballet’s world premiere of “Cinderella,” featuring the work of world renowned choreographer Bruce Wells, opens this Friday, May 6, 2016, at Peter Martin Wege Theatre, and will play for two weekends. In developing “Cinderella,” Wells and Grand Rapids Ballet believe in honoring the magic of the story, and showing the world what makes Cinderella special. Wells wants the audience to feel the beauty of the story and remember why it is a classic. Get to know choreographer Bruce Wells and his artistic vision for “Cinderella.”
About Choreographer Bruce Wells
Bruce Wells is a world renowned choreographer who has created more than 50 ballets. Wells is known for creating compelling narrative ballets with strong classical technique. His training included studying ballet at the School of American Ballet, and dancing in the New York City Ballet under the direction of ballet legend George Balanchine in 1967. Wells also began his choreography career in workshops taught by Balanchine in the 1970s. Over the years, Wells served as resident choreographer at the Connecticut Ballet, the Boston Ballet, where he also served as associate artistic director from 1984 to 1989, and the Pittsburgh Ballet, where he worked as resident choreographer for six seasons. He has worked with some of the dance world’s leading talents, such as Jerome Robbins and E. Virginia Williams. Wells has created ballets for companies all over the country and world, ranging from the Pacific Northwest Ballet and Jacob’s Pillow to the Australian Ballet.
Wells taught ballet at Pacific Northwest Ballet School as a member of their faculty for the past 17 years. He also works as a freelance choreographer and guest teacher, including a recent assignment as a guest teacher for the Dutch National Ballet in Amsterdam, Netherlands. His vast experience as a dancer, choreographer and teacher have led to many critically acclaimed works.
Developing Grand Rapids Ballet’s ‘Cinderella’
When Grand Rapids Ballet Artistic Director Patricia Barker and her husband, Grand Rapids Ballet Creative Director Michael Auer decided to do a production of “Cinderella,” they had a vision for the production and they knew Bruce Wells was the choreographer who could see this vision to reality. Barker and Auer wanted to stay true to the original version of French author Charles Perrault’s fairy tale, but bring out special nuances in the story and stage the production to the musical score “Aschenbrödel,” by Johann Strauss II. Strauss wrote the score for a “Cinderella” ballet, but died before he could finish it.
Choosing to perform “Cinderella” and set it to Strauss music is a fresh take on the classic ballet. Despite the fact that the Bolshoi Ballet asked Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky to write music for a production of “Cinderella” in the 1800s, nothing came of it. In fact, “Cinderella” as a ballet is relatively new. The first ballet production was performed by the Bolshoi Ballet and premiered in 1945 set to music by Sergei Prokofiev and choreographed by Rostislav Zakharaov. Prokofiev was inspired by Tchaikovsky and dedicated the “Cinderella” score to Tchaikovsky’s memory.
Wells talks about the music choice, “The Prokofiev score was designed to support 100 dancers, like the Royal Ballet or Bolshoi Ballet, and we have a much smaller cast. When Patricia and Michael designed “Cinderella,” they designed it to fit Grand Rapids Ballet. This has been a collaboration between Patricia, Michael and myself. It started off as Michael’s dream to set “Cinderella” to the score by Johann Strauss II. Then they brought me in. At first, I wasn’t sure how Strauss music would work for “Cinderella.” But Michael worked very hard on the music, and I was very impressed when I received the score, and I could see how it would work beautifully. He created a very wide spectrum of music. Johann Strauss II wrote some very evocative music.”
Wells found it easy to work with Michael on the project because he was so open to new ideas. “Michael was fine with my vision for the story and how we worked with the score and the progression of events. We stayed true to the main plot elements for each act, but there was a lot of room with massaging the score to work for us. Michael’s musical director Brendan, who played the piano, was also very helpful,” says Wells.
The set is another way Grand Rapids Ballet takes a fresh approach to “Cinderella.” This production will be a traditional 18th century piece, in keeping with Perrault’s original story, complete with ball gowns, the carriage and the special slipper. Yet instead of traditional backdrops with dancers entering each scene, Auer developed sliding panels to create scenes, so that scenes are developed around the dancers.
Wells wants the production to be magical for children and adults. Some of the things that make “Cinderella” magical are the pumpkin to carriage and rags to gown transformations. Wells believes the audience will be pleased with how the production treats these magical elements. He talks about how the set creates some of this magic, “Michael designed the set. He has a vision on how to make your theatre work to best of its ability. The theatre is about the size of repertoire theatre, with a good size stage, and provides a really intimate theatre experience. Michael has developed a technique of scenery, never been done before, in this theatre. He is reinvisioning the theatre and how it is used. It has some restrictions, but there are still many ways to create magical effects. For “Cinderella,” Michael designed these Styrofoam panels that are very lightweight and easy to move. Traditionally in ballet, you get the scenery out and you move the dancer around. But I didn’t want that. Because it is a fairy tale, I had a double goal of creating a ballet that both a 10-year-old and 50-year-old would find enjoy. So moving the scenery around the dancers, having objects fly around, produces a more magical effect.”
Bringing ‘Cinderella’ to Life in Dance
Coming to Michigan to work on “Cinderella” with Grand Rapids Ballet was a bit of a homecoming for Bruce Wells. He saw many familiar faces of both colleagues and former students. He worked with both Barker and Auer at Pacific Northwest Ballet. Six of the Grand Rapids company dancers are former students, who studied with him for years, from Pacific Northwest Ballet School.
Storytelling is very important to Wells. He wants the audience to connect with Cinderella as a person and develop the relationships that make the story compelling to audience members of all ages. The original “Cinderella” ballet, choreographed by Zakharaov, features four female fairies to represent the four seasons of Cinderella’s life, and present her with gifts in preparation for the ball. Wells decided to create four fates in place of the seasons, played by male dancers, to represent Cinderella’s four different possible destinies. He discusses this approach, “I created four fates, these four men, who are in Cinderella’s life, and who work with the fairy godmother. There was a need for Cinderella and the fairy godmother to move around the stage expressively and these four fates allow for that. There is a lot of spirituality and emotion in the story. When Cinderella has a broken heart, she shows this in how she is partnered with these four men. What Cinderella feels inside, I was able to express choreographically through these four men, in her ability to leave the ground. I was able to express how Cinderella is feeling through a much larger movement when she is alone. These four guys also help the fairy godmother move around. The other characters on the stage don’t see the four fates, and neither does Cinderella. She only sees the fairy godmother. The four fates interact more with Cinderella in Act One, when her fate is less certain, and then the interaction decreases gradually, and they spend more time with the fairy godmother, as the ballet progresses, because the prince is now her fate.”
Wells wants the audience to connect with Cinderella emotionally and experience the story through her eyes. One way he does this is how he builds the relationships between Cinderella and important people in her life. There is both the traditional love story and a strong mother-daughter connection from beyond the grave. “We need to meet all of the important characters at the beginning, especially since the prince usually doesn’t appear until Act Two. The ballet starts, on center is a statue covered in a death shroud, and this is the spirit of Cinderella’s mother. She gets unwrapped by the four fates. The spirit of Cinderella’s mother is alive. Then Cinderella comes in alone to lay flowers on the grave. The four fates then dance with Cinderella. Whenever any humans are around, the spirit doesn’t react. But when she is alone with Cinderella, they have some very sensitive moments together. The prince happens upon Cinderella while she is visiting her mother’s grave. She doesn’t know that he is the prince yet. Then, when Cinderella is feeling her most desperate, after being rejected by her stepmother, her mother’s spirit comes back and slowly transitions into her fairy godmother. Throughout the ballet, the fairy godmother/spirit of her mother are always there for Cinderella in important moments,” says Wells.
He hopes the audience will enjoy the show for its romance, tenderness and magic. “I want the audience to feel that sense of wonder and awe that comes with fairy tales,” says Wells.
Wells enjoyed working with Grand Rapids Ballet on “Cinderella.” He talks about enjoyable moments, “The choreography just poured out of me and the dancers were always ready to go. I really enjoyed working with Patricia, Michael and the dancers. I could do this forever.”
‘Cinderella’ Show Times and Tickets
Grand Rapids Ballet will present “Cinderella” in eight performances on the weekends of May 6-8 and May 13-15 at the Peter Martin Wege Theatre at 341 Ellsworth SW in Grand Rapids. Matinee performances are at 2:00 p.m. and evening shows are at 7:30 p.m. This production is very popular, and most shows are sold out, except for the matinee performance on Saturday, May 14. Select tickets are also still available for the Royal Workshop package, a unique experience of watching the ballet from backstage, for a number of the shows. These tickets can be purchased online at Ticketmaster. Call the Ballet Box Office at 616-454-4771, ext. 10 for current ticket information, or connect with them on Facebook.
Originally published on Examiner.com on May 7, 2016