REVIEW: San Francisco Ballet’s ‘Cinderella’ at the David H. Koch Theater
Christopher Wheeldon’s Cinderella is not only steeped in 19th century tradition, but is also part of a rejuvenated, 21st century breed of the story ballet. San Francisco Ballet brought this fresh take on a favorite to the David H. Koch Theater this weekend as part of their New York City tour. Set to Sergei Prokofiev’s famous score, the ballet’s libretto – by Craig Lucas – follows the Brothers Grimm tale and eschews the fairy godmother and pumpkins of the Disney and Perrault versions. Wheeldon weaves realistic characters with the fantastic and otherworldly, playing off the music’s darker strands to create complexity.
Throughout the work, projected images by Daniel Brodie appear on a semi-translucent scrim or along parts of the backdrop: clouds shift and birds flutter across, the audience becomes privy to the royal household behind a projected wallpaper pattern of red and gold, and the portraits of eligible princesses change their expressions as Prince Guillaume’s sidekick of a friend pokes fun at the potential wives.
The scenic design by Julian Crouch and lighting by Natasha Katz are particularly intricate and memorable in the kitchen and forest scenes. During Cinderella’s transformation scene, the spirits of Lightness, Fluidity, Generosity, and Mystery appear in green, yellow, brownish red, and blue, dancing in groups of five. The thicket of leaves that marked her entrance into a forest becomes a large tree whose leaves change hue in tandem with the spirits. Finally, the entire ensemble swarms around Cinderella in a cacophony of color to complete the metamorphosis. A slew of bizarre creatures greets the newly transformed Cinderella.
The production leverages color elsewhere too; the protagonist wears a drab blue from the start until she emerges from this scene in a glittering gold. The stepsisters are each clad in a trademark color throughout, Sasha De Sola as Edwina in a succession of pink outfits and Clara Blanco as Clementine in purple. Their cold, unfeeling mother – Hortensia – is in black.
Act one ends with a dazzling sequence designed by puppeteer Basil Twist. Dancers carrying horseheads and large leaf-covered wheels converge under Cinderella’s billowing white fabric train, and suddenly they are an enormous carriage, driving straight ahead toward the footlights and then off stage right as the curtain drops.
The real driving forces in this unconventional retelling are the four “Fates,” danced by Steven Morse, Sean Orza, Jeremy Rucker, and Luke Willis. They propel the narrative forward and guide Cinderella – who displays little agency or initiative – from familial subservience to an optimistic future. Dressed in a blue with black accents and masks that too closely resemble those currently on sale for Halloween, the four men are omnipresent.
In one of the ballet’s most poetic moments, Cinderella serves dinner to her father and stepfamily on a dim stage. The “Fates” partner her so that she drifts onto and around the table, which rotates slowly. She may be sharing a house with four others, but the forlorn, muted dance on the table reveals how utterly alone, and lonely, she is. The moment echoes in Act III when the “Fates” help Cinderella retrieve the golden pointe shoe she’s hidden above the fireplace.
Wheeldon has a gift for creating intricate and original movement vocabulary – fitted to his characters and the narrative arc without being contrived – as well as breathtaking composition for ensembles. His choreography for groups is like a chemical reaction – the ingredients meet, mutate, and form an entirely new substance, one magical swirl of motion.
Several of the characters’ steps reflect their personalities, as dialects or speech habits would offstage. Vanessa Zahorian, in the title role, dances in full sentences and paragraphs, with luscious articulation of the feet and intonation of the upper body.While the prince and his friend Benjamin – danced by Davit Karapetyan and Hansuke Yamamoto respectively – exhibit a relatively traditional albeit sometimes playful ballet vocabulary, the stepsisters depart from it further, strutting vainly on their toes, snapping their fingers, and falling over each other in absurd displays of sisterly competition. The father character, unfortunately, remains undeveloped. Certain motifs thread their way throughout the ballet. Wheeldon makes extensive use of twisting and alternating fourth positions as one way to explore direction and weight change. Interspersed sections of tight unison dancing for duets and trios are executed with clarity and verve.
Not only does he bolster ballet’s lexicon with new expressions, but he also breaks its front-facing bias on at least two occasions. It is moving to see Cinderella facing her mother’s grave, dancing with her back to the audience. We are intruding on the most private of moments, revealing emotional depth in the work.
Wheeldon flexes his comedic muscles, too. The stepmother’s drunken dance at the ball takes the cake with its superb physical humor. Hortensia – who is surprisingly portrayed by Shannon Marie Rugani on pointe rather than with a character dancer – stumbles to the center of the stage and turns her wine glass upside down, staring at it dumbly. She loses the ability to keep herself upright; with a partner holding onto her leg, her torso droops and flops until he helps her all the way to the floor.
Just a little bit too long, the production is missing something to hold all its parts together and transport the audience for the duration. But Wheeldon’s Cinderella – like James Kudelka’s – ends with a gesture that is worth a thousand lavish wedding scenes.
After a ceremony under a canopy of branches and twinkling lights, the happy couple breaks away from the crowd. Cinderella stares deeply into her prince’s eyes and raises her palm to touch his before he winds her into a warm embrace, her cheek resting gently back on his chest, his arms wrapped tenderly around her. No longer lonely, the two are consumed with love.