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'Cinderella' stepsisters are evil. Fun. And men.

Posted: 11:00 AM, Feb 09, 2016
Updated: 2016-02-09 16:02:52Z

Cinderella’s step-sisters are brash. And coarse. And hilarious, too, at least in the Cincinnati Ballet’s upcoming version of the classic fairy tale.

Oh, and one more thing: They are played by men.

It might sound outlandish. But since the first ballet version of “Cinderella” in 1948, men have nearly always danced the roles. Perhaps it’s to prevent a pair of potentially evil characters from throwing off the ballet’s lightheartedness. Or maybe it has to do with the ballet’s English roots. (Remember, on the London stage, men performing female roles is a tradition that goes back even before the time of Shakespeare.)

“Or maybe it’s just that it was more fun that way,” said Cincinnati Ballet artistic director Victoria Morgan. In her version, which runs Friday through Sunday at the Aronoff Center, the stepsisters are buffoonish and boisterous and threaten to steal every scene they’re in.

“I don’t have any problem with that,” said Jimmy Cunningham, who portrays the more aggressive of the two sisters, a character he has affectionately nicknamed “Priscilla.” He bullies his “sister,” dancer Jake Casey, mercilessly. But Casey’s character, who he has named “Bianca” – “Bibi” for short – can dish it out, too.

As a pair, they’re needy and greedy, sassy and brassy. They battle over a favorite scarf. And pearls. And for the attention of their shrewish mother, played by Grace Shivers.

“They’re such great parts,” said Casey. “It’s easy to get carried away with the humor. When people start laughing, why would you ever want to stop? But it’s important to keep it sharp and focused. If you try too hard, it won’t be funny anymore.”

It’s a balance that he and Cunningham seem to have mastered.

“We’re the clowns of the company, that’s for sure,” said Cunningham. But they’re more than that. They’re good collaborators, too, dancers whose styles nearly always manage to be in sync. “I was worried that it would get too dry doing the same jokes the same way every day. But we’re able to work off each other really easily. Neither one of us likes to do it the same way each time.”

As a result, rehearsals nearly always unearth some fresh new movement or gag. On this particular day, Cinderella – principal dancer Janessa Touchet – puts a man’s hat atop a broom and begins a sweet, wistful dance. Cunningham skips in from the side of the stage and mimics her movement in a mocking way that only a jealous sibling might. It’s mean-spirited, but it’s funny, too.

“Keep it, Jimmy,” Morgan shouted from the front of the dance studio. A moment later she added, almost under her breath, “These guys are so, so great together.”

She’s right. There have been other fine pairings of dancers in these roles. In 2010, it was Selahattin Erkan and Stephen Jacobsen. In 2000, it was Quillan Nagel and Jay Goodlett. But there is something especially memorable about Cunningham and Casey. Perhaps it’s their onstage relationships with Touchet and Shivers. They’re as human as they are comic.

Or maybe it’s the difference in the two men’s dancing styles. There is a certain formality in the way Cunningham moves. He is tall and upright, almost proper. Casey, on the other hand, is extraordinarily physical. He’s a former gymnast whose performances sometime border on ferocious.

Together, though, they are fearless. It’s a description that Morgan likes.

“They’re very, very funny, but it’s not easy to do all of this,” she said. “I think you have to be daring to do these roles. You have to be very comfortable with yourself and be able to access that feminine side. But then they have to be kind of butch, too.”

Dancing in heavy gowns can be complicated, especially when you’re wearing elaborate wigs. And then there are the heels.

“You feel ridiculous,” said Cunningham. “But you just go for it.”

And that’s the key to their success, said Morgan.

“They can’t ever let themselves be embarrassed,” she said. “If they’re embarrassed, the audience will be embarrassed. It takes a certain kind of personality to pull off these roles. They have to say to themselves, ‘I am willing to go there and make a fool out of myself.’ And then they actually have to do it. It’s brave. They’re brave. I admire them big time.”

“Cinderella,” performed by Cincinnati Ballet
8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday
Procter & Gamble Hall, Aronoff Center, 650 Walnut St., Downtown
Tickets: $32 and up; 513-621-5282; www.cballet.org