Creating Magic for Our Youngest Ballet Audiences


March 13, 2024

Creating Magic for Our Youngest Ballet Audiences

Internationally acclaimed choreographer Bruce Wells returns to Atlanta for his fourth family ballet production for Atlanta Ballet 2, the world premiere Cinderella. Atlanta Ballet talks to Wells about bringing the magic of ballet alive for our youngest audiences, inspiring the next generation of dancers, and what it’s like to be back in Atlanta.

Cinderella is the fourth in a series of family ballets for Atlanta Ballet 2, and your sixth overall. Why did you start creating short family ballets for children?

I have been a choreographer for over fifty years for many ballet companies throughout the United States, but I have always been a teacher and have taught in most of the schools I have worked for, including Boston Ballet, Pittsburgh Ballet, and Pacific Northwest Ballet. All these companies produced a Nutcracker that children would appear in, but then there were no further performance opportunities until the end of school year recitals. It was a desert of creativity for six months. So, I decided to create a special ‘family matinee’ for them. I had previously created a Snow White for Boston Ballet in 1985 that I had toured with the students, but the turning point was at Pacific Northwest Ballet when the artistic director there asked me to create something specifically for the school. My vision immediately was to create a series of three ballets, all based on traditional ballet stories but shortened to just one hour in length and divided into two acts. I also knew that I wanted to have narration. As we produced these ballets each year, we were able to have a floating repertoire of performances, all so my students could have ballets created on them. Because ballets were not created on children. In fact, in Nutcracker performances, children rehearse separately and don’t join the main company until the very end. These family ballets were different, they were created specifically for and set on children.

How do you take a long story such as Cinderella, and shorten it into a one-hour performance?

The story always comes first, then I make the story dance. The ballets are primarily story driven and then I fill in with a musical score that I create myself. By that, I don’t mean that I write the music myself, rather I edit it down. I then create a “bible,” a very detailed book that includes the entire story, narration, and the choreographic steps with all the counts. I go through this constantly and make detailed notes and further edits. This enables me to stay on track. I shorten the family ballets by starting with the story and distilling it down. I look closely at roles and their significance, as well as the key storylines, such as Cinderella going to the ball. I decide what takes precedence and work from there to shrink the whole ballet down into a 60-mintue format.

Given the family ballet is such a quick story and I want the children to be able to follow along, I always introduce the characters at the very beginning. To achieve this for Cinderella, I created an open-air market scene. All the characters come to this market, and the narrator introduces each of the characters, who one by one run to the audience and bow.

Your family ballets always feature narration. What role does it play?

Narration allows young children to follow along with the story and to prevent audiences from feeling isolated as to what is happening on stage. And while we know many of the stories already, particularly the story of Cinderella, the narration helps to fill in the gaps, especially as I am compressing these stories into a one-hour performance and telling them at the speed of light. I want the audience to enjoy the performance, to feel engaged with it. And the narration helps to achieve that.

I was the narrator of my own ballets for many years. I was always in costume and would appear on stage to play an actual role in the story. In Snow White, I was the King, in Pinocchio I was the puppeteer, and in Beauty and the Beast I was the courtier who introduced the characters. As Cinderella is such a well-known story, the narrator doesn’t appear in the story, instead the narrator is a female voice that speaks from the back. It’s the first time I have done it this way but have done so simply because it is a story that everyone knows. And the ballet is not choreographed to the voice; the narration is there to support the story.

Why are your family ballets so successful?

In all my family ballets, I sneak in what I call “Ballet 101”. I create a divertissement that represents classical ballet – by that I mean including a lead principal couple, two or three soloist couples and then a corps de ballet of eight female dancers. And while this divertissement may only be five to ten minutes long, audiences do see classical ballet, with dancers en pointe and in tutus, within the 60 minutes of the performance. There is also something for everyone to enjoy. Even a child who is not overly interested in ballet will find enjoyment in other stage activities that help to convey the story.

One time as a narrator, I was in the wings and looked out to see all the students who I had taught on stage, dancing the ballets I created for them. I also could see the entire audience and the energy flowing from the stage to the audience and vice versa. Children love seeing other children on stage and the children who were performing could also see their friends in the audience. I saw the synergy and the magic right in front of my eyes. And that’s why I believe these ballets work.

Tell us more about the spectacular scenery we’ll see on stage and how it supports the story theatrically.

I always feature moving scenery in my productions; everything is on wheels. At the start of Act I, you’ll see four market stall tables and a big wall at the back with the words “Open Air Market.” To transition to the next scene, Cinderella remains on stage and every piece of the scenery spirals around her. The final piece to move is the back wall, which turns around to transition to the fireplace. Moving scenery allows us to change scenes in front of the audience’s eyes, everyone loves to experience that. There’s also a spectacular scene where the Fairy Godmother appears, but I‘m not going to give much away about that, you’ll have to come to the ballet to experience it for yourself!

What will make Cinderella so magical, and what is your favorite part of the ballet?

The moving scenery and everything being on vista makes this world premiere so magical. My favorite part is the scene with the carriage and how it is incorporated into the story. The carriage is also very luxurious, so I purposefully wanted two entrances for it. I think it’s theatrically very effective. I also love the role of the Fairy Godmother. It’s such a small cast, but she has a huge role and is with Cinderella the whole time. So significant is her role, that for the end bows, the Prince and the Fairy Godmother bring Cinderella together to the front for her bow. That really speaks to my sense of theater.

What is it like to be back in Atlanta and to be working with Atlanta Ballet 2 again?

Atlanta is like a second home to me. I’ve known Dean Sharon Story for many years, we danced together at the Boston Ballet. Atlanta Ballet 2 dancers are incredibly talented and gifted and have a global view of dance. They have been trained to work hard and they are with me every step of the way, every day. Some dancers hold onto you and want you to lead them. Not Atlanta Ballet 2. Since the last time I was here in 2020, many of the Atlanta Ballet 2 dancers have since moved to the Company, and that’s such a pleasure to see. I have worked with Atlanta Ballet for 37 years now, and with all three artistic directors – Bobby Barnett, John McFall and now Gennadi Nedvigin. It’s always wonderful to be back.

How do you coach young dancers who are taking that next step in their careers?

I’m one hundred percent in the room, honest with them, and treat them with the same respect and kindness as I would expect from them. As a teacher and choreographer, I may have to teach some steps that may not be in their repertoire, but that is to be expected. I have a large vocabulary that is influenced by Balanchine from a musical perspective and by Jerome Robbins from a theatrical perspective. You must respect and honor the people who came before you. And I would like to think that someday, one of these students will be choreographing and directing. And that they will remember their time with me as a pinnacle time, a time of inspiration.

What do you hope to achieve with Cinderella?

With Cinderella and all these family ballets, I’m shedding light on an art form that we all really love, for a particular audience, our youngest audience. It is my wish that everyone in the audience comes back to the theater to see the main company perform. It’s all about inspiration for me.

Do you think you’ll continue creating family ballets for many years to come?

I never thought I would be doing this, but it completely plays into who I am as a person and a teacher. I’ve had an incredible life in the dance world. I started dancing at the age of nine and I remember my youth vividly, those were magical years. My ballet teacher was English and she performed very British, fairytale, pantomime ballets, and I fell in love with all of that. I was fast tracked quickly into the New York City Ballet and spent over ten years in the same environment as George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins. I knew in my heart that I wanted to do more than dance. That’s how family ballets came to be for me. And I love creating them. I’ve created six ballets now, and I certainly hope to do many more. But for now, I’m just excited about bringing Cinderella to the Atlanta stage for our youngest ballet audiences.

You can see Bruce Well’s creation, Cinderella, A World Premiere, along with the cast of Atlanta Ballet 2 dancers and Centre for Dance Education students, at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, from March 16-17.