Issue:  Vol. 44 / No. 35 / 28 August 2014
 
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Cinderella shines
in second season

Dance


San Francisco Ballet dancer Maria Kochetkova as the title character in Christopher Wheeldon's Cinderella. Photo: Erik Tomasson
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San Francisco Ballet's Cinderella, which premiered last year to already sold-out houses, returned to the Opera House last week, where it looks even better than it did in its first run and plays through this Sunday, with an added show on Friday "due to popular demand." For once that phrase really means something – this Cinderella is a show, an adventure in moving pictures, and everything about it is in the best sense of the word popular. Cinderella herself is an example of the cream rising to the top and embodies the democratic ideal. Prokofiev's music was written to be popular; Stalin had to like it.

Cinderella is a hit with the audience, but not with all the critics; it's been especially attacked by Alastair Macaulay in The New York Times, who found the choreography disappointing. Macaulay is the best dance critic the Times  has ever had, but in this case he's judging too narrowly.

Purists tend to define choreography as just the dancing, and if all you valued were the steps of the dances themselves, well, they're only great when they have to be. For much of the time, they're like pianist's passagework in a concerto: brilliant, fleeting, busily getting us to the next key moment. But if chorography is overall movement design, it's a different matter: the choreographer, Christopher Wheeldon, and his collaborators have created a moving picture that takes up the whole stage, not just the floor of it. From the beginning, when Cinderella's mother dies, Nature begins to mourn. A scrim falls that fills the proscenium arch, projections cover the stage picture with falling rain, and through this veil of tears we see the ghost of her mother floating high overhead, blessing her child, and then Cinderella herself begins to float, mysteriously lifted in postures of grief, carried by shadowy figures who remain with her for the whole rest of the ballet, sympathetic powers who lend her their strength at key moments and make the most ordinary domestic scene (say, breakfast) into a visionary spectacle of floating, wheeling elements that are just as stylized and fantastic as the entrance of the Shades in La Bayadere.

San Francisco Ballet dancers
Maria Kochetkova and Joan Boada in Christopher Wheeldon's Cinderella. Photo: Erik Tomasson

Throughout the evening, visionary movements animate the space overhead. Sometimes the vision is the ballerina herself (Sarah van Patten) being lifted by her Fates or her Prince, sometimes it's revelatory magic (as when portraits in the throne-room of the eligible princesses our boy may have to marry come to life and reveal just how god-awful their real natures are) or the poltergeistian magic that sets the chandeliers at the ball violently akimbo as the clock strikes 12 at the ball.

Similarly, the tree which grows from her mother's grave embodies the mother's undying love, and by the time she's a grown girl, the tree, designed by the great puppeteer Basil Twist, has become a visionary spectacle that takes up the whole stage, with limbs that dance and leaves that roil in the turbulent winds. The dancers moving under that tree have no need for choreography of the singular clarity that Frederick Ashton gave his fairies – indeed, the whole effect might be less magical than the one Wheeldon has created, in which the spirits of the seasons teach Cinderella the movements she'll need to own in order to be the most beautiful dancer at the ball and deserve to hold her place at the center of everyone's attention.

It's been common since the last midcentury for Western critics to condemn pantomime and detailed story-telling gesture and exclude it from the term "choreography." The last great ballet to use this much pantomime was Lavrovsky's unsurpassed Romeo and Juliet, also to overwhelming music by Prokofiev.

San Francisco Ballet dancer
Maria Kochetkova in Christopher Wheeldon's Cinderella.
Photo: Erik Tomasson

Wheeldon has created juicy roles for dancers who can act. Frances Chung has never been more adorable than as the younger, really-rather-nice stepsister, whom the Prince's friend (brilliant Myles Thatcher) falls for. Sasha de Sola had a break-out star performance as the spiteful, narcissistic, truly awful older stepsister. Marie-Claire d'Lyse was perfect as the smooth, beautiful, awful stepmother whose role is rich in variety – she gets drunk at the ball, and she displays herself in embarrassing fullness in a teetering pas de deux with her mortified husband, managing cleverly to snatch four glasses of champagne from passing waiters during that dance alone.

These mime phrases are brilliantly built into the dancing, and reveal Wheeldon's deep background in the English theater; he came out of the Royal Ballet, which got its start as part of the Old Vic Theater. Cinderella combines all these theatrical forces in unique and enormously satisfying ways. The audience is not wrong for loving it. It is a show with a big heart that subtly and incisively shows the ugliness of favoritism in families. Any gay kid who's growing up feeling more insecure at home than anywhere else in life will feel that this show was made for him. This theme is doubled by Wheeldon's device of giving the prince a friend. They like to change places and go around on the lam, and early on they come to Cinderella's house, where the wicked stepmother and the favored sisters fuss over the wrong guy, while the prince in disguise hangs out with Cinderella, who offered him something to eat when he said he was hungry, and they quietly get way into each other long before the question of how she'll get to the ball ever comes up.

A classic must reveal new insights with every viewing, otherwise the effects really do shoot their wad the first outing. Cinderella stands up well because, although everyone already knows what happens in Cinderella, this version keeps you in constant wonder of how the things we know will happen are in fact going to happen. If you're just looking at the steps, you won't feel this wonder, but if you're looking at the stage, you will.

Tiit Helimets, a true danseur noble, was wonderful as the prince. Doris Andre was brilliantly fleet as Spring, Francisco Mungamba had an otherworldly airiness as the Spirit of Summer. Many fine performances added highlights all across the show: Andre again as the Spanish princess, and Kimberley Braylock, Shannon Rugani, Jordan Hammond as court ladies.

 






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