From Bojangles to the ball

Miss Piggy, not the average childhood hero, made an admirable attempt at a career as a starlet, actress and ballerina. Luckily, she had the Muppet gig to fall back on.

But even though she never danced with Baryshnikov, she paved the way for future puppets to tie on toe shoes and take to the stage.

If you were rooting for the tutu-festooned swine, you’ll be interested to know that Grey Seal Puppets has joined forces with the North Carolina Dance Theatre (NCDT) for the upcoming Asheville performance of Cinderella.

Cinderella — envisioned and directed by NCDT Executive and Artistic Director Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux in the classic style of the Paris Opera Ballet — premiered in Charlotte and has been toured nationally. The production features sets by designer Alain Vaes — handpainted in New York — and costumes by Christina Giannini, created in various shops in Charlotte, Winston-Salem, New York City and Puerto Rico.

NCDT was founded in 1970 by Robert Lindgren at the North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem, and has built its reputation on talent, energy and a versatile repertoire ranging from full-length ballets to innovative contemporary works. In addition to national touring, several successful New York appearances and two European tours, NCDT has performed at major dance festivals across the country, including Charleston, SC’s Spoleto Festival and Dance Aspen.

According to a passage on the company’s extensive Web site, “It’s the dancer’s job to make every movement defy gravity and to appear seamless and without effort to the audience.”

In Cinderella, that challenge includes matching footwork with nonhuman partners.

Grey Seal Puppets, a Charlotte-based company established in 1976, created two styles of characters for the production: The first — life-sized, realistically proportioned “dancing dummies” built with a rod mechanism through the body so the heads can turn while they dance — appear in the ball scene. Fully jointed, these puppets attach by the feet to the feet of the dancers, so that human and puppet move in sync.

“For the dancers it was really fun; they brought their own ideas for dancing with the puppets,” explains Bonnefoux. “It takes a little while to realize these are puppets, because they look so real.”

Puppetry, asserts a portion of Grey Seal’s mission statement, “is movement. It’s performance. It’s storytelling. It’s more than craft; it’s a theater form.” Company founder/owner Drew Allison was featured on Elmo in Grouchland, evidence that this is serious (though not too serious) business. Grey Seal is involved in more than 250 shows a year, and their custom-built characters include The Asheville Tourists’ Teddy Tourist and the “wingless chicken” used by the Southern fast-food chain Bojangles.

Far from being a novelty attraction, though, the Cinderella puppets were a practical addition brainstormed during choreography.

“I decided to use puppets to add more people on stage, to make the scene really grand,” says Bonnefoux. “I wanted to add eight more dancers to fill the set. Eventually, we went down to six puppets.”

A second type of puppet was designed by Grey Seal to be used during the scenes where the prince searches for Cinderella, seeking the foot to fill the glass slipper. Establishing the passage of time, puppets convey what might be too laborious in dance: The characters of the prince, his horse, three women and an oversized foot are rod-type puppets shown (in the case of the human replicas) from the waist up on a traditional puppet stage, with the performer out of sight.

Grey Seal vice president/workshop coordinator Vania Reckard explains that, in many shows, the puppet handler is actually in plain view of the audience.

“If we can be, we’re out there on stage with the puppet,” she says. “We find audiences are more accepting of that than you’d think.”

Despite the obvious innovation of the puppets, the ball scene maintains a classic flavor, with costumes based on the idea of Louis XIV-era masked balls.

However, some of the most famous Cinderella motifs have been tweaked, the better to gel with today’s audiences: Instead of being physically unattractive, the “ugly” stepsisters are merely bossy and opinionated. Also, the story and the music have been abridged and changed to adapt to modern attention spans, and the darkness of the original music has been sacrificed: “I wanted to keep it fun and upbeat,” Bonnefoux explains.

But other themes, such as the fireplace and the carriage, have been purposefully enhanced. “There’s some magic that’s been done to bring the carriage to life,” Bonnefoux hints slyly, stopping short of ruining the surprise.

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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