What if "once upon a time" took place in the city of Chicago in 2018?
That's the starting point for Hyde Park School of Dance's Amira: A Chicago Cinderella Story, a new adaptation of the classic tale set to Sergei Prokofiev's 1945 score.
"I really liked the music, but when I went to see a traditional version of the ballet, I found it dated," says HPSD's artistic director, August Tye. "It's fine for little girls looking for princesses and tutus, but I wanted something my dance students could relate to now."
So Tye decided to set the story in the present-day Windy City and make the main characters high school students, just like many of her dance students. She also added an international twist by reimagining Cinderella as an immigrant named Amira.
"I find the concept of retelling an old story in a new and relevant way so inspiring," says Olivia Issa, one of dancers portraying Amira. "I feel that it is so important that artists and creators use their voices to tell the stories that are less heard than they need to be."
Photo by Damien Thompson
Tye, a 27-year resident of Chicago, loves the city and its variety of cultures and wanted to incorporate them into the show. "In Prokofiev's score, the prince searches the world for Cinderella," she says. "But, in our version, the prince character, Ordell, searches Chicago."
The locations Ordell visits include Chinatown, Little India, Pilsen, downtown and, of course, Hyde Park.
To bring these places to life onstage, Tye and photographer Damien Thompson drove around the city and took pictures for projections, which will appear in the production.
Downtown Chicago. Photo by Damien Thompson
And though matching Prokofiev's mid-century Russian score to Chicago's neighborhoods might seem like a challenge, it wasn't difficult for Tye. "Prokofiev was ahead of his time," she says. "If you close your eyes when you listen to the music, it's easy to get to 2018."
Olivia Issa as Amira and Olivia Gotsch as Asha. Photo credit Damien Thompson
In other creative updates, Tye has the essential plot elements of the glass slipper and fairy godmother take different forms.
In HPSD's story, Amira's mother can't find her passport as the family is about to leave their home country—perhaps it fell out of her belongings or was stolen—and is forced to stay behind. But, before she is separated from Amira, she gives her a scarf—one that Amira will later leave behind when she hurries away from the masked ball.
Yet Amira's mother appears in her thoughts and imagination as a guiding force throughout the production, performing during passages of music that Prokofiev composed for the fairy godmother.
"To me, Amira symbolizes the way in which dance not only encompasses the power of storytelling, but the ability to unravel human experiences," says Annesa Dey, who is also interpreting the lead role. "The progressive and conscientious concept of integrating a classical ballet with modern-day details, especially in the context of our home city, brings a new sense of life and purpose to this classical Cinderella tale."
Amira: A Chicago Cinderella Story runs June 15–17 at the Logan Center for the Arts. For more info, visit here.