The Heretic 

Ballet master Malcolm Burn delves into the characters behind “Cinderella.”

The Richmond Ballet’s Malcolm Burn works with dancer Maggie Small while directing rehearsals for his version of "Cinderella."

Sarah Ferguson

The Richmond Ballet’s Malcolm Burn works with dancer Maggie Small while directing rehearsals for his version of "Cinderella."

Ed. note: "Due to the predicted inclement winter weather, the Thursday, February 13th performance of Cinderella has been rescheduled to Sunday, February 16th at 6pm." -- from a press release from the Richmond Ballet.

Malcolm Burn isn't about to tell you his age.

"It used to be you didn't ask a lady her age," the artistic associate and ballet master of Richmond Ballet says. "I've always thought that was highly discriminatory. I don't think anybody should be asked their age."

But if you add his 25 years of being a professional dancer to his 25 years on the artistic staff of Richmond Ballet, even factoring in some overlap, you get a number that doesn't add up to the native New Zealander, still gracefully demonstrating steps next to his dancers.

It's one of the few sunny days in mid-January, a month before the opening of "Cinderella," and Burn is eight days into rehearsals. Before him are two Cinderellas and two Princes.

"Listen," he says to company dancer Valerie Tellman, after she works through a section with her prince, dancer Fernando Sabino. "He's not your boyfriend."

Tellman looks up at Sabino. "But those eyes," she says.

"We haven't got that far yet," Burn reminds her. "By the end of the ballet we're there. Lose the sheep eyes."

When dancers Maggie Small and Marty Davis have their turn, Burn takes Small through some intricate adjustments to the placement of her arms and encourages Davis, in his first year with the company, to take some risks. "Don't play it safe," he says.

During the three-hour rehearsal, Burn focuses on far more than the technicality of the dance moves. "In ballet now, it's all digital," he says. "Everyone goes online and they look at YouTube and watch the solo. The story is being lost. We're telling the story of Cinderella. It just happens to be through the medium of dance."

This is his own rendering of the classic tale, which he choreographed for Richmond Ballet in 2000. Burn researched hundreds of versions of the story, from Disney's to the many centuries' worth of folklore found in countless cultures.

"The father is always interesting to me," he says. "I put the father in there. If she is the step-daughter, then the mother must have married someone. And who is that idiot? Did she con him beautifully? Great sex and now it's all gone to hell in a handbasket? So I have him with a flask in his pocket. That's my interpretation."

Burn's various philosophies and interpretations have earned him a "Heretic Book of Ballet" made for him by his dance company. "I say things that make dead ballet masters roll in their graves," he says. "And those that are alive want to cut me into little pieces with their pen knives."

One item for the book is Burn's concept of the fourth wall, a theater term defining the imaginary boundary between a performer onstage and the audience. "I've heard people say you have to imagine they're not there," he says. "I think that's for insecure people. I think when you ignore an audience you insult them. You don't have to actually talk to them, mug to them, look at them, but you can't ignore them."

As the morning turns into afternoon with no sign of a lunch break, Burn, using a remote control to rewind the music, works with the dancers on the technicalities of the difficult throws, lifts and slides — choreography made more challenging by the complex Sergei Prokofiev score. He combs through the moves, breaking them down, adjusting them to each dancer's abilities, or pushing them when he feels he can. Yet he always comes back to story. Burn requires dancers to build their own internal narratives, which will keep them in character and give the story a slowly building dramatic arc. "Otherwise," he says, "it's just like modern-day films." The dancers within earshot seem to smile to themselves.

Tellman, who's danced the role of Cinderella many times, and Small, who's dancing it for the first time, have been with Burn since they were girls entering ballet school. What he saw in them from the beginning was that they had imagination.

"They are very individual and I want that," he says. "I'm very specific about the counts and musicality and the form. But the rest of it, if they don't take it and run with it, I'm not happy. I told Valerie, "From the first day you walked in you were your Cinderella.' Maggie is now taking the story and making her Cinderella. If they don't do that, and make it their Cinderella, I'll be really pissed off."

Like the rest of his salty comments, there's a smile beneath the words. S


"Cinderella" starts Feb. 13 and runs through Feb. 16 at the Carpenter Theatre. Tickets are available online at etix.com, by phone at 800-514-3849 or at the Richmond Ballet box office.




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