San Francisco Ballet
Cinderella – Another Look
San Francisco, War Memorial Opera House
4 May 2013
On Saturday, by sheer good fortune, I am able to attend both the matinée and evening performances of Cinderella, each with a different cast. A new set of dancers changes the dynamics between the characters and also brings fresh perspectives to the action on stage. Most important to note is that this production, though impressive for the visual elements on first viewing, does not hold up well the second time around on the comedy side. Many of the attempts at humor just aren’t funny any more, though there are exceptions.
The matinée cast, Shannon Rugani as the stepmother and Dana Genshaft and Clara Blanco as the stepsisters, however, make the excellent Friday night cast seem like slapstick music-hall comediennes. These three, instead, elevate the jokes to sharply-drawn satire through the precise execution of the steps, often in perfect synchronisation, and the razor-sharp hand gestures and facial expressions. They don’t resort to low-class buffoonery to be entertaining. Genshaft shouldn’t be afraid to exploit her role’s mean streak even more.
As Cinderella’s Mother and Father, Charlene Cohen and Ruben Martín Cintas are very touching as loving partners and parents. Martín Cintas goes on to reveal his skill as an actor, showing facets of a bereaved widower, hen-pecked husband and affectionate father. He also shows a talent for comedy when dealing with his drunken wife at the ball.
The role of the prince’s long-time friend, Benjamin, offers Myles Thatcher, a corps de ballet member, the chance at a major soloist role. His matinée-idol looks and solid technique mark him as a contender, but he needs to bring more emphasis to the devious prankster side of this part.
Sarah Van Patten is a wonderful Cinderella, more real young girl growing into a woman who is finding her way in love and life than a fairy tale character. She is very adept at quickly switching moods from sadly mourning her mother to playfully enjoying a private daydream, or gently caring for and falling in love with the beggar (the prince in disguise), then grating under the cruelty of her step-family. Her partner, Carlos Quenedit, also astutely portrays all the aspects of the prince: conniving with Benjamin, chafing under parental pressure to marry, acting the humble beggar and sweetly wooing Cinderella.
By the evening performance, I am starting to feel the effects of too little sleep and too much ballet. Guest conductor, Ermanno Florio, currently music director for the Dutch National Ballet, wakes me up with his energetic interpretation. Most of the cast I have already seen in the previous two performances, except for the principal roles. Taras Domitro substitutes for Garen Scribner as Benjamin, and I am very happy to see him again. The stepmother and stepsisters, danced by Marie-Claire D’Lyse, Vanessa Zahorian and Dores Andre, do not form a tightly cohesive unit as the other two teams of nastiness do. Zahorian is far too nice in the first act, but does start connecting to her inner harpy in the ballroom scene. The roles require more distortion, edginess and exaggeration from these performers. On the other hand, the trio of foreign princesses at the ball is the strongest cast so far. Jennifer Stahl as Russian, Kimberly Braylock as Spanish, and Wan Ting Zhao as Balinese are individually and collectively extremely good. They both imbue the roles with national flavor and parody themselves.
Excelling in fluidity and lightness, Yuan Yuan Tan is beautiful to watch. However, she still hasn’t discovered how to become Cinderella, and to touch me in a deeply human way. Luke Ingham is an inspired prince, jumping and turning with exacting form. He is truly marvelous in his pas de deux work; his sure-handed ability and instinctive sense for keeping his partner on balance in turns or lifts translates into seemingly effortless dancing for two.
I could spend pages dissecting the entire production. I will spare you and mention a few pet peeves instead. Although I appreciate the role of the four Fates in protecting and guiding Cinderella, they are so ubiquitous that I wish they would take a break once in a while. Their costumes of black and blue lend a Ninja look that makes them seem menacing rather than helpful. When they pass Cinderella constantly from one to another while she is aloft, the effect is rather heavy, rather than giving the impression of floating or flying. Each Fate needs to hold her longer and move farther to create the illusion of weightlessness. The same is true after the mother dies and her spirit heads heavenward.
The other complaint concerns the use of the music. There are so many missed opportunities for sweeping choreography. During an intermission at the afternoon show, I run into a friend who knows the Prokofiev score backwards and forwards, and who tells me that many sections of music have been moved around. Perhaps, leaving it in its original form would have been a better idea. That way the story might follow the flow of the music.
Let’s hope as the company settles into the production, the large assemble scenes grow less chaotic and the all the roles are fleshed out and refined. The rest of the run is sold out so it’s standing room only. Cinderella will be presented again next season so if you like this kind of over-the-top Broadway-style extravaganza be sure to order tickets well in advance.