Sneak Peek: Ballet San Antonio’s Cinderella

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When I heard that Ballet San Antonio was going to be performing Ben Stevenson’s Cinderella as their initial offering for the 2013-2014 season, my interest was immediately piqued. This is serious business. I was familiar with Stevenson from my days in the 1980’s as a ballet and modern dancer in Houston. During his 27-year tenure with Houston Ballet, he transformed it from a sleepy but promising regional company into an international powerhouse, actually in a relatively short period.  Ballet San Antonio isn’t fooling around. This commitment indicates grit. I needed to know more about what they are up to…

Chatting for a moment with Ballet San Antonio Artistic Director Gabriel Zertuche, it immediately became clear that this is a passionate young man with something to prove. He has worked his way up the ladder since 2006, initially as a company dancer, then ballet master, then choreographer, arriving at his present position in 2012. His gentle demeanor belies a tenacity that refuses to accept anything less than success. Quickly recognizing the potential of the company upon his arrival in San Antonio, he understood the importance of building a foundation in the city that would allow the organization to truly thrive.

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He acknowledges that the excitement of the Company’s imminent station as the official ballet company of the new Tobin Center is a great driver. Cinderella represents a vision to set a major, high-calibre production in advance of the opening season at the Tobin. Along with his staunch colleague and ally in the front office, Executive Director Courtney Mauro Baker, a partnership with the community is in the process of being forged that will continue to propel this group forward into a bright future.

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Today, Gabriel is in the studio. It recently came to light that his services would be required on stage as Cinderella’s grieving father. This is a small company with only 26 dancers. Setting a large story ballet on a group this size is challenging when it comes to casting. It is commonplace for a dancer to cover more than one role, but there are just so many places one can be at a given time. So, Gabriel dons another hat and pitches in to cover this role — just another day at the office for our intrepid AD.

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For those unfamiliar with Ben Stevenson’s pedigree, it reads like a Who’s Who of the ballet world. As a young man, he quickly rose to the top of the ranks performing with the stars of British ballet — Alicia Markova, Frederick Ashton, Kenneth McMillan, John Cranko, Margot Fonteyn. His career as a dancer ended at age 29 as a result of a riding accident, but this was simply the opportunity for a magnificent next act. Ben Stevenson, OBE, has become the recognized contemporary master of the “story ballet.”

His Cinderella, scored by Sergei Prokofiev, is the version most often staged by companies around the world. Originally created for the National Ballet in Washington DC in 1970, it was his debut piece when he became Artistic Director of Houston Ballet in 1976. And now it will come into the repertoire of our own Ballet San Antonio.

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Janie Parker with Li Cunxin back in the day at Houston Ballet — photo courtesy Ballet San Antonio

When you are as in demand as Ben Stevenson, it is impossible to be everywhere you need to be at once. It is often necessary to assign surrogates to mount your ballets. Such is the case with San Antonio. When we arrived at the appointed hour to view and photograph company rehearsal, I was literally gobsmacked. This wasn’t just any surrogate. Lo and behold it was Janie Parker! Now, my excitement for the Company is off the meter!

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Janie Parker in rehearsal today with Ballet San Antonio

This down-to-earth and unassuming Texas girl was Ben’s muse for 20 years as Prima Ballerina of Houston Ballet. Stevenson plucked her from George Balanchine’s Ballet du Grand Theatre de Geneve to come to Houston with him in 1976. Legend has it that for years after, Balanchine nursed a bit of a grudge, not allowing Stevenson permission to set his ballets. But I digress… Parker was the first American to win the gold medal at the prestigious International Ballet Competition  in 1982. Retired from the stage now for 17 years, you can still glimpse the steely diamond glint that made her among the very best in the world.

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The day’s rehearsal begins at the top of Act I (understanding that there has already been at least an hour of warm-up at the barre). The energy level is intense. At this point, the Company is 75 hours (4 weeks) into rehearsals with only 2 weeks until curtain at the Lila Cockrell Theater, and the clock is ticking. Everyone is understudying multiple roles. Every moment must count and perfection is expected. It is what ballet dancers do. Rarely does the public get a glimpse into the studio — the countless hours of work and repetition, the injuries, the emotional and physical fatigue. We simply expect to be transported into a beautiful dream. The music, the sets, the costumes, the lighting — and the dancers — whisk us into an imaginary world constructed for us by the choreographer. If everyone is successful at their job, we are held spellbound until the curtain drops. This is no mean feat.

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No role is insignificant — from the broad and bawdy wicked stepsisters in drag, to the virtuosic handsome Prince Charming, to our ethereal and gentle Cinderella — each role gets marching orders and the tools to make their portrayal better. Between her own firm knowledge of the ballet and the videotape that confirms niggling and absolutely necessary details, Ms. Parker works a charm offensive. Teasing and cajoling, gently pushing for more always. Her style is subtle, choosing to lead with an even temperament and good humor as opposed to martinet practices. Her impact on the dancers is nonetheless immediate. Her eyes are everywhere at once. Her insistence upon the most minute detail for each and every character is steadfast. After all, there aren’t many who know this ballet more intimately than she, and this is the very essence of success. “Well enough” simply isn’t an option. The dancers work to give her their best, attempting to be more with each and every repetition. They gamely push through what the rest of the world calls “lunch hour” to wring every valuable minute out of the day. She pushes for the dancers to “hit the tops” of each movement, each position. I laugh out loud when she says, “The in-between stuff is just dancing.” Indeed.

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This drill continues until Ballet Mistress Dede Barfield gives Parker the high sign that it is time for rehearsal to come to an end for the day. A gaggle of pre-schoolers have gathered in the lobby awaiting their ballet class — the next generation. And the company disperses, like so many mice and pumpkins, to return another day, persisting in the drive to perfection.

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Ballet San Antonio deserves our support and attention at a critical moment in their development. This is your opportunity to get on board. Then you can say “I remember when.” Trust me, it’s a great feeling!

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Ballet San Antonio’s Cinderella runs at the Lila Cockrell Theater in San Antonio October 10-13, 2013. For tickets and more information, click here.

To view the entire photo album, click here.

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