The Arthropologist

Bosom Buddies: Men on pointe get in touch with their feminine side in Houston Ballet's Cinderella

Bosom Buddies: Men on pointe get in touch with their feminine side in Houston Ballet's Cinderella

News_Men on Point_Houston Ballet_Cinderella_Oliver Halkowich_Phillip Broomhead_Steven Woodgate
Oliver Halkowich, from left, Phillip Broomhead and Steven Woodgate in the Houston Balletproduction of Cinderella, choreographed by Stanton Welch Photo by Drew Donovan
News_Houston Ballet_Cinderella_Amy Fote_Connor Walsh
Connor Walsh and Amy Fote Photo by Amitava Sarkar
News_Men on Point_Houston Ballet_Cinderella_Oliver Halkowich_Phillip Broomhead_Steven Woodgate
News_Houston Ballet_Cinderella_Amy Fote_Connor Walsh

So there's no pumpkin turning into a gilded carriage in Stanton Welch's Cinderella, running at Houston Ballet, Thursday through March 3. Get over it, there are men dancing in pointe shoes. 

Much about Welch's Cinderella strays from the more familiar versions of this classic tale, which dates back to the 1st century B.C. Greco Egyptian girl Rhodopis. Welch's mix-mastered version, originally created for The Australian Ballet in 1997, draws from the Brothers Grimm's dark fairy tale Aschenputtel ("ash girl"), Gioacchino Rossini's famous 1817 opera, the traditional English pantomime version of Cinderella, with its lovable servant, Buttons, and of course, and most importantly, his own vast choreographic imagination.

It's an elaborate production, with 207 sumptuous costumes and sets by the late New Zealand designer Kristian Fredrikson, set to Sergei Prokofiev's dark and brooding score. 

 

"They are not evil people. They are just spoiled and bitchy," Welch explains. "Cinderella is bitchy right back to them. It's really about family dynamics."

There's not a drop of Disney in sight. I promise you will not miss the singing while they sew fuzzy forest animals at all.

Where Welch really starts to have fun is in his choice to put the stepsisters on pointe. It's traditional to have men dance the roles, and there are a few versions that have them on pointe as well, but here, they really dance. "I liked the idea," says Welch. "I didn't want them so much to look like men in drag though. They look like women."

Welch also tweaked their roles. "They are not evil people. They are just spoiled and bitchy," Welch explains. "Cinderella is bitchy right back to them. It's really about family dynamics."

But to have the dreamy team of  Peter Franc, Joseph WalshOliver Halkowich, Jim Nowakowski, Ilya Kozadayev and Rhodes Elliott as stepsisters is just inspired. Walsh, Nowakowski and Franc play Grisabella, the pretty one, while Halkowich, Elliott and Kozadayev dance Florinda, or as Welch jokes, "the other one." Shades of Downton Abbey anyone?

I chatted with Walsh, Franc and Halkowich to get the inside sister track.

"Just about every male dancer has crammed their foot into a pointe shoe once in their life," says Welch. "I knew they could do it."

Not even in dresses and pointe shoes could these three ever be ugly. Perhaps a tad dowdy, but ugly, never. Hilarious, yes. Learning a lot, hell yes. 

Welch wants his men on pointe team to have some finesse, so they are in serious training mode. Veteran stepsister Halkowich tells all:

This is my third go in drag. I was a stepsister in Ben Stevenson's production many years ago, and now this is my second helping of pointe shoes, padded bras and false eyelashes in Stanton's Cinderella. Speaking of eyelashes, my first time around, I mistakenly used orajel, a toe analgesic, as false eyelash glue. I went into the second act slightly blind and crying."

Franc reports some technical perks of life en pointe. "You can turn with more ease (if you get on balance) in pointe shoes cause there's so much less friction than we are used to, only going to demi-pointe."

Dancing is just plain different when balancing on a tiny platform. "You have to hold your turnout more from the muscles in the inside of the top of the leg, rather than depending on your foot to hold the turnout on the floor," says Franc. "Being on pointe really helps activate those turnout muscles from the right place, that in turn, really helps my dancing. It also strengthens the calves and ankles."

  "The pointe shoes are a great aid to let your feminine side just ooze out of you," admits Walsh.

Then, there's the ouch factor. "The most surprising thing  is always how truly painful it is," says Walsh. "Just when you think you have gotten to the breaking point of pain, it gets worse."

Halkowich's feet have seen better days too. "My feet aren't getting any younger and putting the pink coffins on four years later is that much harder. I've been trying to wear the pointes an hour a day. (The girls wear them for seven and a half hours.)  More than the swollen feet and the handful of blisters, it's the rest of my body that's reeling from the effects of the shoes. My calves are bricks."

Let's not forget the work. "There is so much to do with a pointe shoe before you even put them on. Our principal ballet mistress Louis Lester, who also teaches our private 'stepsisters only' pointe classes, is a huge help in teaching us all the tricks of the trade," says Walsh. "The girls get a kick out of seeing all the men trying to sew their own shoes. When the shoe finally fits perfectly, and you feel comfortable with them, they die."

As hard as dancing on pointe is for these men, it's really as much of an acting gig as it is dancing. "The acting is actually a distraction from the pain of dancing on pointe. And the pointe shoes are a great aid to let your feminine side just ooze out of you," admits Walsh. "Hearing the audience laugh in response to the acting and dancing really helps me get into the role even more and takes my mind off of feeling so ridiculous."

Franc agrees. "We do so much fighting with Cinderella and with each other, it's impossible not to have a lot of fun. It's great playing a mean character because you can get away with a sort of behavior you're not really used to in real life."

Being a stepsister has really changed the men's view of how hard the women have to work in their daily dance life. "We have so much admiration for the ladies now in every way. It's every simple little thing, like a releve on one foot, you don't realize that it takes so much strength to do," adds Franc.

Walsh concurs. "One thing I will undoubtedly take away from this experience, is a respect for every woman who has to put pointe shoes on everyday without a single complaint. I don't know how they do it."

Still, the adventure is not without giggles. "Louise has us guys hold hands in a circle in the center of the studio as we pique and echappe around. It's a technique meant to support, but when the music ends, one of us is down and the rest are laughing," confesses Halkowich. "Ugly stepsister indeed!"

Stanton Welch explains his take on Cinderella.