The story of Cinderella warms the hearts of children and their parents in just about every culture across the globe, with its tale of oppression and triumphant reward gratifying our hope that goodness, and true love, can overcome adversity.
For centuries, Cinderella has been the subject of folktales, operas, ballets, stage plays, musical scores and films, and can be traced as far back as 7 BC, to the tale of “Rhodopis,” a Greek slave girl who marries the King of Egypt. The Bolshoi Theatre premiered Rostislav Zakharov's 1945 version to the Prokofiev score, with Galina Ulanova in the title role. The Joffrey staged a faithful reconstruction in 2016, and who could forget Disney?
Enter “Amira: A Chicago Cinderella Story,” with a modern twist, just in time for Hyde Park School of Dance’s 25th anniversary. (Friday through Sunday, June 15-17, Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts, on the University of Chicago campus.)
Under the direction of August Tye, Hyde Park School of Dance (HPSD), which she founded in 1993, serves over 490 students of all races, ethnicities and economic backgrounds, from age three through adult, in 80 hours of classroom instruction per week, September through June, plus summer workshops and intensives.
Tye, who is also Ballet Mistress of Lyric Opera of Chicago, was looking for a new story ballet that would be fun to create on the school’s students for its 25th anniversary. Cinderella, with its story appeal and vast numbers of characters for dancers of all ages and skill levels, seemed a perfect choice. After seeing a traditional ballet version, with the mean stepmother and ugly step-sisters, she said, “I just can’t do this!” She was determined to find a different way to tell the story. “It just came to me one day in the shower!” she said. The original Prokofiev ballet score would be great for a contemporary setting, and with immigration in the air, her transformation of the Cinderella story took off.
The ballet opens with Amira, her parents, and her little sister at the Department of Immigration. Her mother doesn’t get through, but gives Amira her scarf, as a reminder that she would always be in her heart. The mother becomes a kind of invisible phantom fairy godmother, looking over Amira and guiding her in spirit, dancing in the background. The rest of the story unfolds in the Hyde Park neighborhood where, as a new immigrant everything is foreign to her. Amira goes to high school. She dresses differently, acts differently from the other kids.
The ugly stepsisters translate into the mean girls at school, played for humor by HPSD’s most advanced, pre-professional high school students, who make fun of Amira and taunt her with their cell phones. They faun over the most popular boy, Ordell, but he notices Amira, says hi to her, and is kind. One girl is also nice to Amira and gives her an invitation to a masked ball.
Excited to be invited, Amira goes home to tell her little sister all about it, but she laments that she has nothing to wear. In despair, Amira runs off to The Point, a Hyde Park landmark on the lake, where, in a magical story twist, fireflies and frogs come out to dance with her and transform her clothes with their lights. They are also the timekeepers who come out at midnight.
At the masked ball, at the stroke of midnight, instead of her shoe, Amira loses the scarf her mother had given her, and you can guess what happens after that.
In all, 125 dancers perform, 60 of whom are from the school’s studio company. Anyone who auditioned got a part, including adult dancers who appear as guests at the masked ball. Among them are guest artist Jeremiah O’Connor, a teacher at the Joffrey Academy, and his wife, Ginger. As with HPSD’s annual “Nutcracker,” parents and family members of the dancers volunteer in all production capacities, from scenery design and set construction to costumes, props and publicity, making this a truly community-wide event.
The family-friendly, 75-minute long production premieres at 7 PM this Friday, June 15, at the Reva And David Logan Center for the Arts, 915 East 60th Street, Chicago. Additional performances are Saturday, June 16 at 1 PM and 6 PM, and Sunday, June 17, at 2 PM. For tickets and directions, go to seechicagodance.com and click on “See Dance.”