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A conversation with Atlanta Ballet’s Tara Lee, dancing “Cinderella” as a strong woman

When you think of the ballet “Cinderella,” based on Charles Perrault’s classic fairy tale, you may envision a poor but virtuous girl transformed into a prince’s bride, pumpkin and mice changed into a coach and horses, a benevolent fairy godmother and comical ugly stepsisters performed by men in travesty.

Atlanta Ballet‘s new production of “Cinderella” has all of that. Top that with the stage debut of artistic director and choreographer John McFall’s 5-year-old daughter, Stella Blue, and you have an outing made for the kids. The production opened last night at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre and will run through Feb 14.


Christine Winkler as Cinderella. Photos by Charlie McCullers

But there’s more to the three-act story ballet. McFall stretches an already expressive ballet vocabulary with surprising transitions and atypical lines that play off of Prokofiev’s angular, motorized melodies. And unlike Frederick Ashton’s and Ben Stevenson’s more standard versions, McFall casts Cinderella as a strong, independent modern woman.

McFall explained, “Cinderella’s journey and the range of emotions she experiences are central to the story, not just the promise of a happy ending. I wanted to make her human, more relatable as the audience experiences her evolution before their eyes.”

To learn more about this newly envisioned Cinderella, I caught up with Atlanta Ballet’s Tara Lee, who’ll dance the title role this Friday and Saturday and next Friday and Sunday. In conversation, Lee has the same spellbinding quality she wields on stage — her deep eyes so intently expressive that you can’t tear your own eyes away from hers.

CBP: Can you tell me about this modern Cinderella’s journey?

TL: I don’t think she considers herself a victim, but the circumstances around her are really tough. She’s lost her mom, and she’s had to adopt this new family that’s not very loving towards her, except for her dad. She doesn’t necessarily see a way out. Then she meets the fairy godmother, who represents all hope and light and magic to her, and she eventually meets the prince. Through them, she comes to know herself even more, and her own strength and power. By the third act, she finds herself back in the rags again. At first, she’s really disheartened … distraught that she’s back in that same prison. But then she realizes she’s free on the inside, because no matter where she is, she’s found love.


Tara Lee. Photos courtesy Atlanta Ballet


CBP: With every role I’ve seen you dance, your character goes through a clear, strong and vivid progression. What do you think about, to bring your dancing to that performance level?

TL: You just have to be as present as possible. It’s the less you do … the less control I try to “put on” the dance, the better it is. So the story carries you, and the emotions carry you and the music carries you, too. Those are the moments when you feel like it’s not your responsibility — it’s more like you’re being a conduit for the story.

CBP: This ballet may be done again in 10 or 15 years. What parts would the company call on you to coach, because you know them better than anyone?

TL: I think that’s the third act pas de deux where Cinderella and the prince come back together again. It’s a calmer, more mature type of love than the second act, after the prince discovers the love that he had just lost. I don’t know if it’s the music or the place it is in the story or just that it’s so hugely romantic — I feel a really nice connection to that one. He’s in his prince outfit and she’s in her rags. [Initially] I was going to change into the romantic dress, but there was not enough time. Then the idea just came up — she should just be in her rags. Why not? He still loves her.

CBP: How do you identify with this character?

TL: I think it’s all the same, the journey she goes through towards the end, where she realizes that no matter what is happening externally, whether she’s with the prince or whether she’s back home in the rags, she knows herself. She’s come into her own and that gives her a sense of freedom and peace. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve started to find that. I’ve learned to keep my center a little bit more through everything, and dancing’s a lot more fun that way.