Mark Tucker lingers in the air for a moment after launching into the first jump in his solo as Prince Charming.
A principal dancer with Eugene Ballet Company, Tucker has just stepped off the sidelines of the studio, where he stood watching Koki Yamaguchi perform the same variation, pulling his already tall frame up just a bit straighter with each of Yamaguchi’s jumps. EBC’s Artistic Director and co-founder Toni Pimble reminds both dancers to “adhere to the music” as they work together in rehearsal for Cinderella.
Pimble starts the music for Tucker’s solo just after he’s taken off, the first note coming in right as he lands the jump. In three weeks, music director Brian McWhorter will be the one anticipating Prince Charming’s landing as he leads a full orchestra through Sergei Prokofiev’s score.
On Friday, Nov. 5, the Hult Center’s Silva Hall welcomes EBC and Orchestra Next back to the stage for the first time since February 2020 with Pimble’s Cinderella, running through Sunday, Nov. 7.
First performed as a ballet in 1813, Cinderella tells the story of a kind, virtuous girl who lives with her cruel stepmother and stepsisters. “When Cinderella comes into [Prince Charming’s] life via this magical bridge through the fairy godmother, he recognizes her humility and her hard work,” Tucker says. “And when she has every excuse to be down and distraught about her situation, her virtues sort of lift her above face value. And I think that’s the beautiful part of the story.”
Tucker will be dancing alongside his wife, Danielle Tolmie, in EBC’s Cinderella. Tucker and Tolmie have both been principal dancers with EBC since 2015, and have danced in Cinderella with the company twice before, in 2010 and 2014. The company’s homecoming to the Hult after the pandemic took dancers off the stage in March 2020 also marks Tolmie and Tucker’s debut in the lead roles of Cinderella with EBC.
“They will be vibrating,” Pimble predicts of her dancers before rehearsals for Cinderella have begun. “Literally, with pent up energy. Eighteen months, essentially, that they have not been on stage in public, has been really challenging for them, and for us. They are so eager to come back on stage, I can’t tell you.”
EBC was one of few large arts organizations to keep everyone on salary throughout the pandemic. “We were able to do it, “ Pimble says, “for those dancers who did come and work with us for that period, we did keep them on salary.”
Adapting to Time Away from the Stage
For Tucker and Tolmie, this allowed them the ability to continue to train, and also gave them the time to transition into becoming new parents. Their son, Luca, was born about two weeks before the lockdown began in 2020. “We could not normally afford to have 11 months at home with him,” Tucker says.
“We still danced through it all. We went to the studio with him a lot,” Tolmie recalls. “He’s growing up in the studio.”
Tucker and Tolmie developed a routine together during those months in the studio without performance. “We would take our morning work-out separately,” Tucker says, “and try to time our day so that we would show up to the studio right as we were putting him down for a nap.” The couple would then take turns working and watching Luca.
“We actually developed a really great rhythm of coaching each other,” he recalls. “We were very grateful to have a coach and an extra set of eyes that could kind of look at us — someone who we trusted — and keep our technique growing.”
The kind of trust Tucker describes is what both dancers point to as the greatest benefit of having their partner onstage also be their partner at home.
“Getting to look at him across from me,” Tolmie says, “in the eyes, it calms me down in a performance. If I’m nervous or if there’s a stressful part, just looking at him — he’s that person for me outside of the studio, but he’s also that person onstage and inside the studio.”
Getting into Character, Now for Full Audience at Hult Center
Back in her warmups after morning class, Tolmie stretches out her long limbs while her son, Luca, now 20 months old, perches next to her. Both are watching through a studio window, albeit with different levels of focus, as the Summer Fairy and her two attendants work out a lift sequence in morning rehearsal for Cinderella. Luca has become a regular audience member at company rehearsals in the third floor hallway at the new Midtown Arts Center, the new facility EBC moved into last winter.
EBC’s move to this new space has been, “In all ways, a huge game-changer for us,” Pimble says. “It is fantastic.” The larger space gives her dancers greater confidence as they prepare for the stage. “Because Studio 6/7 is the size of — actually it’s more than — the Hult Center stage,” she explains. “We really can space everything correctly before we go to the Hult Center.”
In preparing for the roles of Cinderella and Prince Charming, Tolmie and Tucker dig in and look for the nuances of the characters. “I really try to create an inner dialogue for myself,” Tolmie says. “Imagining what the other person [in the ballet] would be saying in order to make me feel those emotions is really important.”
“They’re both very good character dancers in the sense of embracing the characters they’re performing,” Pimble says of the couple. “Cinderella’s a great role for a ballerina to dance. It has a lot of aspects to it — not just the poor little put upon girl who lives in the kitchen.”
McWhorter, who will conduct the orchestra, points to how the dimensions of Prokofiev’s score bring out the individuality of the dancers in Cinderella. “You think about the story of Cinderella. There’s this sweet innocence that we associate with [her]. And then there’s all the darkness,” McWhorter muses.
Now in its 10th year, Orchestra Next, a teaching orchestra that brings in both students and professionals, also accompanied EBC for the performance of Cinderella in 2014.
“I lived with that piece for weeks and weeks and weeks, and coming back to [Prokofiev’s score] now,” McWhorter says, “I’m really moved by it.”
An Ode to the Ugly Stepsisters
Pimble’s Cinderella brings out not only artistry in its dancers, but also humor and wit. In choreographing the roles of the two ugly stepsisters, she and the dancers worked “to find witty ways for the females to express their character.”
“We had great fun doing it. I love it when I discover women who have wicked senses of humor,” Pimble says. “It was great fun to work with them and discover that they had really good comic timing.”
Tolmie, who danced the role of one of the ugly stepsisters with EBC in 2014, remembers the performance quite fondly. “That was my most favorite memory of performing,” she says. “I helped Toni create the role of Rosetta — that’s kind of the meaner, older sister — and I can just remember having the most fun onstage that at that time I had ever had.” Now Tolmie is watching the dancers who are cast as stepsisters this time around tackle the characters. “They’re really starting to get into the character, and play with it. And they’re making me laugh.”
The roles of Cinderella and Prince Charming will be danced by Tucker and Tolmie at the opening night performance at 7:30 pm Friday, Nov. 5, and at the matinee performance 2 pm Sunday, Nov 7. Koatsu Yashima and Koki Yamaguchi will dance the principal roles at the matinee performance 2 pm Saturday, Nov. 6.
Yashima and Yamaguchi have been dancing together for five years, with this season marking their fourth with EBC. The dancers returned to Eugene in August after a year and a half teaching and dancing in Japan.
Adjusting to a full-time rehearsal schedule again takes a physical toll on the dancers, but they say the challenge is welcome. “My body aches after eight hours of rehearsal,” Yashima says at the end of a full day of dancing, “but my heart is full.”
Absence from the stage certainly made the hearts of EBC’s dancers grow fonder. After 18 months of dancing at home and in the studio, EBC returns to the Hult Center with newfound excitement and passion. “I hope many will come and see our homecoming back to the Hult center,” Tolmie says.
Cinderella runs 7:30 pm Friday, Nov. 5, and 2 pm Saturday, Nov. 6 and Sunday, Nov. 7, at Silva Concert Hall at the Hult Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets are $15-$60 at HultCenter.org; more information on the show at EugeneBallet.org/Cinderella.