January 23, 2020
Cinderella, Christopher Wheeldon’s version of the timeless fairy tale, has returned to the San Francisco Ballet. Its exceptional richness — not for nothing is it regarded as a confection — continues to reveal new depths and delights as the years pass and the dancers change and grow.
Take Frances Chung, the Cinderella of Tuesday night’s opening performance. Rising from the corps de ballet in 2001 to soloist in 2005 and principal dancer in 2009, she once was Stepsister Clementine. Her Prince Guillaume, Joseph Walsh, joined the company as a soloist in 2014 and became a principal the same year. They have a fine rapport, seeming to endow each other with a charming sensitivity and éclat that comports terrifically with superb technique. It’s also fun to watch Sarah Van Patten, a stunning principal dancer with all the major classical roles under her belt, as Stepmother Hortensia, a clueless shrew and perfect slapstick drunk with all the right wrong moves. (We know that nowadays, drinking to excess isn’t funny — except when it isn’t real.)
For this reviewer, the ballet offered a new revelation: Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev’s score is, for the most part, perfect in mood and in delivery. On reflection, it’s the voice of a time we can never forget.
Wheeldon’s choreography skillfully, sensitively intensifies Prokofiev’s darkest undercurrents, neither sinking beneath the weight of sorrowing passages nor falsely injecting gaiety where none exists.
Prokofiev began his Cinderella in 1940 but put it aside during World War II. It premiered at the Bolshoi ballet in Moscow in November 1945. The era’s trauma, as well as moments of surcease, even of comic relief, is perfectly reflected in the music.
This begins in the ballet’s prologue, with Cinderella as a child playing in the park, with her doting parents. The sadness of the music juxtaposed with this happy green place tells us what’s to come.
When Cinderella’s mother dies, a huge, glowing, leafy tree grows out of her gravestone. The tree, remarkably, is a giant puppet, part of the brilliant stagecraft of puppeteer Basil Twist; its shadows and light move with the music as Cinderella’s loss, and her grief, follows her to womanhood.
We see her doomed to a life of servitude in a darkened kitchen, sitting by the hearth. Her family now consists of the nasty stepmom Hortensia, the wacko stepsisters Edwina (Elizabeth Powell) and Clementine (Ellen Rose Hummel), and Cinderella’s ineffectual dad (Tiit Helimets), who has married Hortensia and lives under her foot.
In marches Prince Guillaume, disguised as a homeless man. He and Cinderella are taken with each other. Benjamin (Esteban Hernandez, a dynamic, newly promoted principal dancer) is the prince’s wingman. Neither of the young men takes royal obligations seriously on this visit, jokingly switching identities with impunity, and Benjamin promptly crushes on Clementine, whom he will meet again at the ball. Hortensia has thrown Cinderella’s invite into the fire, but never mind. She’s going.
About that ball: There will be no fairy godmother to get Cinderella there, but you won’t miss her. Beneath Cinderella’s dead mother’s living, glorious tree, quintets of tree spirits circle, each quintet embodying a season and a virtue, a la The Sleeping Beauty (here they’re Lightness, Generosity, Mysticism, Fluidity). There are also a pair of bigheaded puppets and a couple of tree gnomes, hanging out and contributing to the not-in-Kansas-ness of it all.
Cinderella joins in the dancing, having been carried there by four strong yet graceful Fates, onstage puppeteers in dark camouflage (Max Cauthorn, Daniel Deivison — Oliveira, Steven Morse, and Alexander Reneff — Olson). The Tree Spirits teach her the dances she’ll need for the ball. As the music swirls faster and faster, the Spirits spin allegro, their bodies seeming to transmogrify into wheels, another fine twist from Basil Trick.
Cinderella vanishes and then reappears in a golden ballgown, shoes, and sparkly mask. The fates pop Cinderella under a beautiful silky canopy, she perches there in her carriage with the four new wheels, and, rising into the gorgeous blue clouds in the sky, she levitates solo to the palace, giving the impression that at least at that moment, she’s a woman in charge of her own destiny. It’s a great end to Act One.
The royal ballroom is spectacular, with rosy arches and waltzing couples in formalwear and bright taffeta gowns (scenery and costumes designed by Julian Crouch), as well as, of course, Cinderella’s ridiculous family. Clementine does waltz off with Benjamin and surprise! She’s actually a cute, sweet young woman in round spectacles, kicking up her heels, and it’s a love match.
Cinderella meets her prince again, but now he’s in a scarlet jacket and white tights. They stare into each others’ eyes, fall into each others’ arms, and waltz and waltz and ... waltz. This goes on for really too long. But then the twosome have a pas de deux, each with a brilliant, difficult solo of leaps and pirouettes and grand jetés, and piques to delight each other and the War Memorial Opera House audience, by now kvelling like grandmothers. There is more dancing and more and more. Prokofiev, at this moment, is very happy; the music sounds remarkably similar to the scene in the town square from his ballet Romeo and Juliet. They whirl beneath a moon-and-starlit sky (designed by Natasha Katz).
Ah, but the music changes and the curtains close. The room grows dim. Now, in keeping with the timeless tale, there’s no clock striking midnight. Instead, the music ticks ominously, the Fates stiffly gesture with their arms and legs, and we know trouble when we hear it.
In keeping with tradition, however, the prince does find Cinderella’s slipper, left behind in her haste for home. The subsequent hunt through the kingdom for the shoe’s owner is like a game of musical chairs, as women from every nation, perching in a row, try to squeeze their feet into the slipper. You know how this ends: Cinderella has hidden the mate of her slipper on the mantel, she grabs it and gives it to Prince Guillaume, it fits, so does the other slipper, and, with a pause for Cinderella to forgive Hortensia for being so mean to her and to hug her dad, who has finally reproved his wife (to hearty huzzahs from the audience), the Prince and Cinderella (now in an even prettier white wedding gown) join the festive white-gowned wedding party, with the royal family and the courtiers, the servants and the gnomes beneath the green tree, circling and leaping, smiling and waltzing, grinning in delight.
By now, Christopher Wheeldon has become the fairy godmother. The wedding party takes on its own magic. Everyone is happy, everyone loves everyone, and this loveliest of trees, for all the world like the world, embraces them all.
Through Feb. 2. Information and tickets at the SF Ballet website.