San Francisco Ballet
San Francisco, War Memorial Opera House
3 May 2013
Interview with Christopher Wheeldon
about Cinderlla and other things
Aimée Tsao is also seeing some other casts and further thoughts will be added to this review over the next few days.
3 May 2013: Tonight is the premiere of Christopher Wheeldon’s Cinderella for San Francisco Ballet. However, the ball has already started before the curtain even goes up. Behind the opera house, the high society patrons are sitting down to a gourmet dinner in a lavishly-decorated tent, while the lobby of the theater itself is awash with the lesser “nobility” in evening gowns, tiaras and tuxedos. The adjectives lively and festive are decidedly understatements, as the excitement of the crowd escalates to an intense pitch. The advance publicity has been ubiquitous, every bus in town seems to have a huge poster on it. The result is that the theater is completely sold out and standing room is the only option left.
Cinderella is a co-production with the Dutch National Ballet, which hosted the opening of it in Amsterdam in December 2012. It has been more than twenty-five years since SF Ballet has had this work to Prokofiev’s score in the repertoire, and it seems an inspired choice by artistic director Helgi Tomasson, as hardly anyone doesn’t love this timeless fairy tale.
This Cinderella is certainly an instant audience favorite. With a plot that adds a few new twists, costumes that are both exquisite and inventive, sets and special effects that astound and dancers who outdo themselves on every level, what more could you ask for? One thing does come to mind – interesting choreography would be a welcome addition. Somehow all the other aspects of the production were worked out quite thoroughly while the actual dances look a bit neglected, just like Cinderella is by her family.
Craig Lucas’s libretto is an amalgam of ideas: parts of Perrault’s best-known version, bits of the Brothers Grimm, some of Rossini’s opera and a sprinkling of original elements. It really does introduce new perspectives on both the story and character motivation. From Rossini comes the swapping of roles by Prince Guillaume and his friend Benjamin, where the prince plays a beggar whom Cinderella takes in and feeds. In the process, they fall in love; she is ignorant of his true position and he is impressed by her kindness to the less fortunate. There is no Fairy Godmother as in Perrault’s story, but the Brothers Grimm version provides the tree by the grave of Cinderella’s mother which comes to represent the power of mother nature. That aspect is augmented by the invention of the four Fates who protect and advise the heroine. The four seasons variations in the music are now danced by four groups of spirits. Spring is Lightness, summer Generosity, autumn Mystery and winter Fluidity, and the Spirits teach Cinderella how to dance for the ball.
The visuals team – Julian Crouch (scenic and costume design), Natasha Katz (lighting design), master puppeteer Basil Twist (tree and carriage direction/design), Daniel Brodie (projection design), and Frank McCullagh (scenic associate) – have collaborated to make a stunning environment for the action. The costumes for the tree gnomes – human-sized frogs and birds – are brilliant in bizarre detail. At times, so much is going on that it can be overwhelming. In those cases, less would be more. When the video projections add a layer of visual information that is beyond what the eye can comfortably take in, it’s time to cut back.
The evening’s cast is outstanding: Maria Kochetkova and Joan Boada are sublime, as always, as Cinderella and Prince Guillaume; Taras Domitro as Benjamin, the prince’s friend, displays his matchless technique and a gift for comedy; Katita Waldo as stepmother Hortensia and Sarah Van Patten and Frances Chung as stepsisters Edwina and Clementine, all nail their parts and are outrageously funny. Other notable performances by Clara Blanco as the leading Spirit of Lightness, Hansuke Yamamoto as the lead Mystery spirit and Dores Andre as the Spanish Princess add to the overall excellence of the dancing.
The choreography can’t keep up with the high level of the other production elements. Wheeldon resorts to frequent unison action for the corps de ballet, often in lines with the dancers all facing the audience. There are shades of Cranko-esque short overly repetitive motifs that are boring at best. Sometimes movement sequences lack distinctive shape and seem out of step with the musical phrases. While it’s admirable that Wheeldon wants to champion classical ballet, he could learn a lesson or two from Alexei Ratmansky in how to explore the vocabulary more extensively and create more architectural design in the overall structure of his dances.
If extravagant productions are the way to bring in new audiences and fill the till then they are justified for those reasons alone. However, they don’t necessarily leave a rich legacy for future generations. Somehow it seems that the size of the production budget is inversely proportional to the breadth of imagination that goes into the art form.
Cinderella continues through Sunday, May 12. Tickets are selling fast, so if you want to go, buy them now.