A version of this story appears in the Sunday Life section of The Oklahoman.
Oklahoma City Ballet closes season with ‘Beauty and the Beast’
The company’s new adaptation of the “tale as old as time” features choreography by Artistic Director Robert Mills and a new score from frequent collaborator Kermit Poling.
The “tale as old as time” of a cursed prince saved by the love of a kindhearted damsel has survived as a fairy tale, a 1980s television series and perhaps most famously as an Oscar-winning animated movie.
On Friday, Oklahoma City Ballet will debut its new version of “Beauty and the Beast,” with choreography by Artistic Director Robert Mills and a new score from frequent collaborator Kermit Poling.
“The story goes back to ancient folklore,” Mills said. “Then, the fairy tales came, the Perrault fairy tales, the de Villeneuve tales. Reading some of those, I took some of that.
Inspired largely by the 1740 Barbot de Villeneuve story “La Belle et la Bete” as well as Jean Cocteau’s 1946 French film of the same title, Mills’ interpretation of “Beauty and Beast” will be the Oklahoma City Ballet’s 2013-14 season finale.
Performances are set for 7 p.m. Friday and 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday at the Civic Center Music Hall. The Oklahoma City Philharmonic will premiere Poling’s new score live during the performances.
Adapting a favorite
Audiences won’t find talking candlesticks and frolicking flatware, but the ballet company’s version of “Beauty and Beast” boasts plenty of magic, including sprites and goblins, an enchanted peacock and of course, the powerful witch who turns the prince into the Beast. When he was adapting the story, Mills said he had to pick and choose what he would take from the various versions of the venerable tale, including the Walt Disney one.
“When we did ‘Phantom of the Opera’ it was a concern as well. You know, people think so readily of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, and I think with this, people do think readily of the Disney cartoon,” Mills said. “I would say what we’re doing is probably a lot darker than the Disney cartoon. It’s actually, I would say, more real, as real as this fantasy can be. There’s plenty of funny things, there’s plenty of cute things, but it’s a little … more adult in nature — but still something that families and children will absolutely enjoy.”
Discarding some of the periphery characters, Mills focused the story on the Beauty, Belle, and the Beast. Unlike the Disney princess movie, though, he wanted to make the ballet as much the Beast’s story rather than telling it primarily through Belle’s eyes.
“It’s looked at more as a story for young girls, but it’s ‘Beauty and the Beast.’ I mean, there’s this monster there, there’s this prince that’s transformed into this ugly creature. And I consciously really wanted what they did to be very equal,” Mills said. “When you look at a lot of classical ballet, the female role is really pushed to the front. And I tried to push them both out there.”
Dancing and emoting
Since the ballet focuses so much of the title couple, that means the dancers in those roles have to largely carry the production, which features plenty of duet dancing, or pas de deux. Principal dancers Ronnie Underwood and Yui Sato are splitting time as the Beast during the three-show run, while principal dancer Miki Kawamura and company artist DaYoung Jung are performing as Belle.
“I never watched the Disney movie, never read the books. It wasn’t on my top 10 hit list, so I really didn’t know the story that much until we started. Then, I’ve learned a lot. This ballet really does tell the story,” Underwood said. “Throughout the whole thing it’s really about Belle and Beast and how much emotion and turmoil he kind of goes through – which kind of sucks, you know, being the hottie and then getting turned into the Beast – so it really does tell the story really well. It’s hard. For the Beast it’s really hard. There’s a lot of partnering.”
“A lot of lifting,” Kawamura said with a smile.
Of course, bringing the fairy tale to the stage involves fantastical sets and elaborate costumes, which the dancers must work through and around as they perform.
“Gloves, claws, hair. Lots of hair,” Underwood said, adding that the mask is a particular challenge.
“It’s like wearing a football helmet to do ballet basically. I really can’t see, it’s hard to spot your head. You know, you’re not running in a straight line, so it makes it totally different.”
But the flowing dresses and furry masks also can help the performers get into character.
“For me, a costume gives me power that I can get into (it) more,” Jung said. “This is kind of my first story ballet. … Before I just danced technical-like without acting, but now I need to bring myself to the ballet.”
For the experienced dancers, putting themselves into their fairytale characters and telling the story with authentic emotion presents more of a challenge than any lift or turn.
“Technically it’s not that hard – I mean, it is hard, a lot of lifting, but it’s not like really crazy tricks, it’s not that – it’s just more about the story. How are you going to tell the story to the audience?” Sato said.
“So I’m always thinking like more acting-wise, more than the technique and lifting, turning. And I feel like this ballet is all about the principal couple, because (it’s) only us dancing a lot. … We have to tell this story to the audience, so we really have to be in the character.”
Performing for children
With the Disney connection, the story ballet is expected to attract many families with children.
Beginning an hour prior to every performance, parents and youngsters can gather in the Civic Center’s South Lobby, to make their own magical roses, sponsored by Oklahoma Contemporary. After the Saturday matinee, company dancers will meet and greet the audience in the lobby with refreshments provided by Braum’s.
“I always love having kids in the audience and (to) meet them after the show. It’s, oh gosh, adorable, ‘You did a great job’ and all that. And that’s true because it comes from kids and they’re honest,” Kawamura said.
Oklahoma City Ballet’s “Beauty and the Beast”
When: 7 p.m. Friday and 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday.
Where: Civic Center Music Hall, 201 N Walker.
Presented by: The Melting Pot.
Information: 848-8637 or www.okcballet.com.