Center Dance Ensemble's Snow Queen Is a Pre-Frozen Winter Tradition in Phoenix

Fans of Disney's 2013 film Frozen take note: Center Dance Ensemble has been telling the Hans Christian Andersen tale that inspired the movie for more than 20 years in a production called Snow Queen.

Performances continue through Sunday, December 21, at Herberger Theater Center, where CDE is the resident dance company. It's directed and choreographed by CDE artistic director Frances Smith Cohen. Susan Silverman, who heads the Dance Theater West studio and is related to New Times' Amy Silverman, is assistant director/choreographer.

Frozen explores the divergent lives of two sisters, including one who becomes the icy, isolated Snow Queen. But there's double the sister power in Cohen's Snow Queen, which has sisters representing each of the four seasons.

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The sister who rules winter decides one day, after spotting a lone wrinkle while admiring her face in a small mirror, that hers should be the sole season. She breaks the mirror into shards of glass, sending a sliver into the eye of a young lad named Kai and setting the world on a path to perpetual winter.

Andersen's fairy tale was published in 1844 -- long before the advent of Dove's "Real Beauty" campaign trumpeting the be-true-to-you approach to womanhood. We'd lament the negative stereotype about vanity were it not for a later scene in which the powerful Snow Queen parades a passive Kai around on a silver leash-like chain.

Kai's troubles begin after the Snow Queen's hypnotic powers lure him to her frozen fortress. The happy news is this: Kai's love interest Gerta won't let it go -- so you needn't worry about dancers breaking into the movie's best-loved musical number. (For the uninitiated, it's "Let It Go.")

Snow Queen features music by Sergei Prokofiev that alternates between whimsical and dramatic. The 20th century Russian composer is best known for writing music for ballets that include Peter and the Wolf, Romeo and Juliet, and Cinderella. His own muses never included Idina Menzel, the musical theater megastar who originated the role of misunderstood Elpheba in Wicked on Broadway before landing a gig voicing Frozen sister Elsa -- the one who leaves comfy castle life behind to become the Snow Queen.

CDE uses a recording rather than live music, something common nowadays given budget constraints and space considerations in small performing arts venues. Live beats recorded every time, but don't let that keep you from seeing the show. It's still plenty charming.

The Snow Queen cast includes Cohen's daughter, Rachel Cohen, a teacher and dancer who sits stage right throughout in storyteller mode as if reading the famous fairy tale from a book. Her narration is appropriately sparse, providing just enough information to help those new to the story follow its plot.

Professional dancers perform lead roles, and the production also includes dozens of young dancers well-taught by Cohen and Silverman. Amber Robins is the sole Snow Queen, while Gerta and Kai are double cast.

For the first performance this season, a Saturday matinee that was quite polished, Elaine Keightley danced Gerta and D. Daniel Hollingshead danced Kai. Both effectively conveyed the innocent yearnings of young folk in love. Lisa Knighton and Alan Khoutakoun also dance these roles.

The three sisters are danced by Katie McDowell (Rose Spirit), Sally Hogan (Enchantress), and Erin Lovrien/Nicole Olson (Lady Autumn). As in years past, Hogan pretty much steals the show. In addition to her technical prowess and comedic skill, Hogan has an unfair advantage. Hers is the kooky sister whose charisma far outweighs that of the others.

During Saturday, December 6's opening, the best performances belonged to Emilio Minto and his fellow robbers, a bungling group of cowards who set upon Gerta only to befriend her after hearing her sad tale of losing Kai to the evil Snow Queen. All have a knack for comedic movement, and their cohesiveness is impressive.

Those steeped in ballet rather than modern dance will note some striking differences, including Cohen's use of sharp, angular lines. She's a Martha Graham-trained dancer, a fact consistently reflected in her choreography.

Young dancers (there are 143 of them) are triple cast in roles that include villagers, gypsies, rosebuds, flowers, wood sprites, ravens, and snowflakes. Youth from 41 different studios are dancing in this year's production. The Valley's next crop of professional dancers, arts educators and committed audience members may well be among them, which is reason enough to show your support by showing up.

But there's another reason as well: the show's beautiful design elements. The Snow Queen set, which conjures images of the famous Faberge eggs, was designed by Paul Sannerud. Its village backdrop channels Seuss's Whoville, while its Snow Queen throne has an art deco flair. It's all enhanced by Michael Eddy's artful lighting design, which plays off the shapes of ice shards and snow flakes.

Costumes designed years ago by Margret Emerson, Kayla Helfrich, Pamela Robertson, and T.J. Weltzien are delightfully detailed and imbued with colors just a bit off the beaten path. The Snow Queen's Beastie, which has illuminated eyes, looks like a white jellyfish and abominable snowman hybrid. It's an over-the-top fantastical element that appeals best to kids too young to say "abominable."

While it's true that CDE's Snow Queen is best-suited for families, it's also a decent choice for date night. Couples watching the current Snow Queen story arc in the ABC television series Once Upon a Time can do the whole compare and contrast thing over drinks or dinner after the show.

The venue sits on a corner adjacent to Arizona Center, and near art districts including Roosevelt Row, so dining choices abound. Gerta ultimately saves Kai using rosebuds to defeat the evil Snow Queen (so much more romantic than that bucket of water trick in The Wizard of Oz), so lovers with a knack for planning ahead can use the whole rose petal thing to their advantage.

Center Dance Ensemble performs Snow Queen at Herberger Theater Center through Sunday, December 21. Tickets are $14 to $28. Tickets for abridged one-hour performances for Lunch Time Dance Theater on Wednesdays, December 12 and 19, are $6. For information or tickets, visit Herberger Theater Center online or call the box office at 602-252-8497.

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