It has been a difficult year for the performing arts but when opening night of the Vail Valley Academy of Dance’s “Cinderella” began at the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater Wednesday, you would have no way of knowing that.
As Amanda Dirvonas, the graduating senior who shined in the ballet’s lead role, lay “asleep” center stage at the start of the performance, she wasn’t thinking about the masks they wore in the studio or the uncertainty of their first live audience performance since the pandemic hit. She was transported into the world of one of her favorite fairytales, reveling in the joy of doing what she loves on a stage marked by the pointe shoes of countless professional dancers.
“It almost felt like the whole story was coming out in a more natural way, as if we were in our own little world up there but it wasn’t like a staged world,” Dirvonas said Thursday.
Each year, the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater hosts ballet professionals from across the country and world for the Vail Dance Festival, and this year was the first time that the academy’s dancers had the chance to perform at the venue as most performances are held indoors at the Vilar Performing Arts Center, the academy’s artistic director Ashley Calligan said.
“Normally, in a blackout, you would just see me sleeping when the curtain opens,” Dirvonas said. “But it was nice to be able to see the lawn and to have the light coming in from behind us through that garden.”
And so it was that the Colorado sun shone through the beams of the amphitheater roof and onto Dirvonas as she rose from the stage and began to dance, each movement purposeful, thoughtful.
“That’s a dancer,” a little girl in the audience said, seemingly proud at her knowledge of what was going on.
“She’s beautiful,” the child seated next to her responded.
And beautiful she was as she moved across the large stage with ease, taking on the role of a subservient princess-to-be forced to cook and clean for her wicked stepsisters and stepmother.
One of these wicked or, better said, wickedly funny stepsisters was another graduating senior, Tanner Essex.
Essex’s true love is musical theater, a passion he will pursue at Millikin University in Decatur this fall, but he joined the academy to strengthen his dancing skills. Naturally, he was overjoyed to learn he had been cast as a stepsister.
“I knew that it was kind of a heavy acting role, and I knew I wouldn’t have to worry much about looking perfect and pristine when I was dancing,” he said Thursday. “I knew I was going to be able to take this role and do what I wanted with it.”
Essex and fellow stepsister Ella Moberg decided they would take the artistic and comedic license given to them by Calligan and run with it, bumping and jolting and sneering their way across the stage. Stepmother Quinn Kelley, another graduating senior, was right behind them, rolling her eyes so dramatically that even audience members in the back of the lawn laughed.
In an art form prone to seriousness and the pressure to be perfect, Calligan allowed them to laugh and be silly at time when everyone could use a hearty chuckle, Essex said.
“Comedy in ballet is one of the coolest things because there are no words or speaking or singing or anything like that, so it’s just purely our facial expressions,” he said.
The removal of face masks aided this endeavor, and each comedic moment was punctuated by laughs from audience members whose smiles lingered even after Essex, Moberg and Kelley exited the stage.
In Thursday night’s performance, the lead role of Cinderella was played, just as beautifully, by Sydney Adair, also a graduating senior.
Before any dancing began Wednesday night, Essex was the first onstage, quieting the audience with a moving rendition of “Only You, Lonely You” from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Cinderella.”
“(Calligan) made a point to ask me to sing before the show, because she’s always just been so good at showcasing our individual talents,” Essex said.
Essex’s voice rang out through the amphitheater as parents settled in with popcorn and beers, soft at first but with emotion and power that seemed well beyond his years.
“And I’ll find a way to make you see, only you can rescue lonely me,” Essex sang, finishing the song in a powerful crescendo.
Next to the stage was Calligan, who introduced the show and expressed how proud she was of the academy’s dancers, which range from 3-year-olds to high school seniors, for making it to opening night.
“It’s been a hard year and we made it through,” Calligan said then, nearing tears.
The show started with Dirvonas, but quick to follow were the academy’s Division 1 students — the little ones — cast as the most adorable interpretation of Cinderella’s mice. The mice leaped and sashayed with joy, showing their character as they bowed to Cinderella one by one before running off stage.
The dressmaker, the hat maker and the dance teacher, played by Reese Dean, Gracie Johnson and Jacqueline Lazier, respectively, came to help prepare the stepsister for the ball — a hopeless endeavor that they enacted with poise and grace.
Then came moment many parents were waiting for: the appearance of the fairy godmother ushered in a series of dances showcasing the academy’s ballet divisions of all ages as they prepared Cinderella for the ball.
First came the joyful “moonbeams,” adding mystique to the fairy godmother’s arrival, followed by the fairy godmother’s attendants, older dancers whose arm movements showed incredible synchronicity.
Next up were the butterflies, younger dancers with beautiful colored wings who demonstrated an early mastery of the échappé sauté, followed by a wistful bunch of fairies and then spring fairies in flowing pink dresses.
Tate Drescher, mother of fairy Ellie Drescher, said her daughter could not wait to perform in front of a live audience again and called her performance “lovely.”
The “sprites,” the performance’s largest group of dancers, wowed in bright green costumes as they embodied the lively music played during their number. Then came the flowers, who seemed to dance on air, and the summer and autumn fairies, each personifying the seasons they were meant to represent.
One sprite, Tatum Jaffe, also avoided the nerves and couldn’t wait to live out her passion onstage, her mother, Amanda Jaffe, said at intermission.
“You have to drive them every night to dance, and you have to wait for an hour or two to pick them up and it gets to be a long season,” Amanda Jaffe said. “They put in the time and effort and it’s nice to see it all come to fruition in the end.”
The ballet’s two winter fairies, Sydney Adair and Carlotta Porter, both graduating seniors, were simply stunning in their white tutus.
The fairy godmother herself was played by Audrey Lypps on Wednesday and Carlotta Porter on Thursday.
The sun began to set over the amphitheater as each group cycled onto the stage, revealing a second set of dancers that twirled in the shadows cast on the wall stage left.
After the intermission, the ball began and the princesses, duchesses and courtiers were the picture of elegance as they fought to win over the attention of the prince, played by guest artist Mike Stone.
Finally, Cinderella enters from stage left, completely transformed in an embellished gold tutu and she and the prince dance the night away.
The dance culminates when Stone lifts Dirvonas “in pas,” an elegant, but seemingly back-breaking position, as the other members of the ball gather around them.
“It’s really freeing,” Dirvonas said of that moment. “When you’re up there, it does feel like you’re floating.”
“(Dirvonas) has not had a lot of lead role partnering experience, so to get to be there for her through that was really a great experience for me,” said Stone, a professional dancer who flew in to help the academy in absence of an older male lead. “She was stunning.”
Stone is followed by his trusty jester, Brecklyn Honan, who later aids him in his quest across the amphitheater to find the foot that fits the glass slipper of his runaway love. And, well, we all know how the story ends.
“As artists, we want an audience to perform to and for and when that was taken away it mutes our passion,” Calligan said Thursday. “Seeing those kids opening night, their passion was definitely not muted.”
“Especially with the (seniors) we have this year, they’ve been through a lot, and I hope that what they leave on the stage they’re proud of because it really was amazing,” she said.