The dance was wild, loose and earthy at the Creole Cinderella Mardi Gras party at the Akron Civic Theatre, performed Thursday by Neos Dance Theatre of Mansfield.
The seven-member company, joined by guest dancer Jens Lee Peterson, went all out with a woozy, tipsy, boozy flavor for this Dixieland-inspired, evening-length dance, performed last year in Mansfield and now making its Akron debut.
Created by resident choreographer Mary-Elizabeth Fenn, it is a delightful sendup of silent film, set in pre-World War I New Orleans. Katie Edmonds serves as the elegant narrator who struts like a Lipizzaner across the stage with black and white signs identifying key story elements.
At the Civic Theatre, an audience of 60 sat on the back half of the stage, looking out into the theater house and its starry dome. The dance troupe performed onstage, creating a theatrical experience with strong acting, cool costumes with masks, and artful lighting as well as a white scrim that dropped near the edge of the Civic stage, behind their playing space.
Dance lighting designer Dennis Dugan created beautiful shadow effects as Cinderella (Fenn) danced early in the story with her fantasy love (Bobby Wesner), who performed on the other side of the scrim. The way their shadows joined in a duet, although their characters were physically disconnected, was breathtaking.
For an altogether different effect, six dancers, including the two nasty stepsisters, crouched in groups of three in front of two footlights that gave their faces a leering, grotesque look.
In this version, Cinderella’s referred to as Cindy, and she meets the Mardi Gras King (Wesner) at the ball. The fairy godmother becomes a Voodoo Queen, played with wonderful mysteriousness by Juliana Freude, who serves as a deus ex machina.
Earlier, Wesner and his wife, company member Brooke Wesner, create a beautiful flashback from behind the scrim as they portray Cinderella’s happy childhood that is marred by tragedy. The Wesners play Cinderella’s parents, and their real-life daughter, Mekah, portrays young Cinderella.
In this highly physical dance, stepsisters Brooke Wesner and Freude knock the waif-like, petite, blond Cindy around a lot, and the stepmother, danced by the outrageous Peterson (a man in a long dress and crazy curly wig), stuffs her in a trunk.
There’s quite a bit of slapstick and physical comedy a la silent films, with the stepsisters throwing temper tantrums and dancers bumping into each other in succession in a line. As multiple women vie to prove to the king that they’re the girl whom the white ballet slipper fits, one even dives across the floor on her belly to get to the slipper.
In this fascinating piece, characters are gleefully dancing Charleston steps one moment but darkness and despair follows the next. When Cinderella has reached her breaking point, she lets out a silent scream and falls disjointedly onto the floor eight times in a row.
Fenn’s choreography has plenty of surprises, with dancers at times moving like wooden dolls, and lovers Cinderella and the Mardi Gras King even reaching to each other’s backs as if they’re working the other’s marionette strings. In another moment, the petite Fenn crouches under one of her love’s outstretched palms, bumping her head gently several times against his hand.
The move is repeated later, when the stepmother adds a surprising twist to the story. It’s fun to see that the Cinderella in this version of the fairy tale finds her strength, showing beyond a shadow of a doubt that she is finally taking charge.
The whimsical yet emotional piece is so creative, surprising and funny, it is bound to become a longtime favorite among fans of the company.
Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or firstname.lastname@example.org.