In ‘Cinderella,’ Southern California Ballet takes a classic and gives it a modern touch

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San Diego Union Tribune

by Michael James Rocha

It’s probably good that ballet dancer David Ward’s latest project is in San Diego. He kinda has a thing for fish tacos.

“I love them,” the 32-year-old confesses.

This week, he’s in town to play the role of The Prince in Southern California Ballet’s production of “Cinderella,” which premieres Saturday, April 6, and continues Sunday, April 7, at Poway Center for the Performing Arts.

It is the first full-length production by the husband-and-wife team of Martha Leebolt and Toby Batley, who took the helm as co-artistic directors in 2017.

In between rehearsals, Ward and his family — wife Emily Gotschall and their 2-year-old daughter — have been enjoying what San Diego has to offer, visiting Coronado and partaking in a fish taco or two.

“We love traveling and eating great food — eating is a hobby. Wait, can that be a hobby?” he asks, laughing.

Ward, who has known Leebolt and Batley since working with them back in his native England, arrived early last week and immediately jumped into rehearsals.

“This will be my third time dancing with the Southern California Ballet, the last two being ‘The Nutcracker’ — Christmas last year and the year before,” says the Columbus, Ohio-based Ward, who previously danced with BalletMet in Ohio before going out on his own.

Normally, he performs with his usual partner, but for this Southern California Ballet production, he’s dancing with a student. The role of Cinderella is being played by two Southern California Ballet students, Madeleine Franz and Kanaha Takeda, both San Diegans.

Ward has performed in other “Cinderella” productions, most notably BalletMet’s version of “Cinderella,” choreographed by BalletMet’s artistic director, California-born Edwaard Liang. Each production, Ward says, has unique qualities that make it special. This one has new choreography by Leebolt and Batley. And, Batley proudly says, “it’s bigger than what a company of our size normally does.” A market scene, for example, fills the stage with more than 50 dancers, all in costumes designed by Terry Worley of TUTU Terry in Carlsbad.

“Toby was speaking to me the other day,” Ward says, “and they wanted to definitely refresh it ... put their take on it, their twist on it. It’s still a classic version, but a little bit more neoclassical. The goal is to keep the narrative strong and keep the story moving for the kids. With all these classics, it’s hard for kids to sit that long for a three-act ballet, even if it’s a fairy tale.”

This “Cinderella” — which also features Isaiah Bindel as the Stepmother and Kenda Vance as The Queen — is the brainchild of Leebolt and Batley, who wanted to give the production a modern feel. It’s been in the company arsenal for more than 20 years. Leebolt, who grew up in San Diego and is a Southern California Ballet alum, performed in that “Cinderella.”

“But we really wanted to do something ourselves and give it our touch,” says Batley, who like Leebolt danced with Northern Ballet in England, where they were both principal dancers.

He and Leebolt were careful to be respectful of the original “Cinderella,” “but we also wanted to bring it up to date.”

At its core, he says, “we wanted this ‘Cinderella’ to tell a story. The work that we have done in our careers lean heavily on narrative ballet — from ‘Cleopatra’ to ‘The Great Gatsby’ to ‘1984.’ That’s our expertise.

“One thing that we have learned in our careers is really how to tell a story,” says the Manchester, England-born Batley, who trained at the Hammond School of Dance in Chester and the Royal Ballet School in London before joining the Jeune Ballet de Cannes in France.

“We learned quickly to take something and boil it down to the essence of the story, and from that essence, find out what kind of ballet we can make of it,” he adds.

For this production, they started off with the music: Sergei Prokofiev’s original composition for Nikolai Volkov’s libretto. It premiered in 1945 in Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre.

“Prokofiev is such a strong narrative composer,” Batley says. “But before we did this, we hadn’t listened to his music very much. We’d heard a lot about that score. When we listened to it, what we heard was a really amazing and quite beautiful score. We sat for two days in our little apartment, listened to the music and put it together — writing it scene by scene to the music.

“What we did, as much possible, was simplify and boil it down,” he says. “Not dumb it down but make it comfortable for a person to take the story in and enjoy the show.”

That’s a goal Batley shares with Ward, who admits audience reaction often affects what he’s doing on stage.

“With some roles — I’ve just come away from doing a production of Coppélia — you’re on stage a lot of the time and you don’t leave stage for a while,” says Ward, who began dancing at the age of 5 because his parents thought it would help relieve his asthma. “In that case, you definitely feel and witness more of that audience reaction. But there’s no doubt that the audience’s response is going to feed your performance. You can feel them — you can feel them if they’re laughing or just sitting in awe.”

For a dancer, Ward says, a performance “is really about a journey ... and hoping you can take the audience on that journey with you.”