San Francisco Ballet
War Memorial Opera House
San Francisco, CA
May 3, 2013
by Rita Felciano
Copyright © Rita Felciano, 2013
Christopher Wheeldon's San Francisco Ballet premiere, "Cinderella," a co-production with the Het National Ballet, was possibly the most anticipated program of the season. It has been sold out for weeks, and Opening Night was surrounded by enough hoopla to make next year's Gala a difficult act to follow. Clearly, audiences love story ballets; they love San Francisco Ballet; and they love "Cinderella." I wish I could love her more.
Sometimes affectionately, sometimes with a wink -- Wheeldon (and Lucas) paid tribute to earlier story ballets. We got a prince (a stolid Joan Boada) with a friend (a princely Taras Domitro), thankfully not named Benno, who refuses to assume his responsibilities. There is a Twitter version of national divertissements (the lickety-split Sasha DeSola, Dores Andre and WanTIng Zhao) and a test on how to treat a poor, hungry stranger (Boada in disguise). A prince frantically looks for his beloved in what appears a labyrinth and, of course, the two young lovers are out of tune with their families -- here with a happy ending. These glimpses into precedent grounded the patched together story in a noble tradition but we certainly could have lived without this having to be a prince Guillaume -- an ordinary guy who likes to horse around. Also could we please get rid of the Prologue which slows down the ballet's initial thrust, adds little to the narrative, and only makes sense in retrospect.
Gratefully, Wheeldon took the saccharine out of "Cinderella" but with it went some of the sweetness. Except for the last Pas de Deux, an intensely private moment between two young people deeply in love, the choreography was at its most inventive during its high comedy sections. Some of those were simply brilliant. Trying on the slipper became a race along the lines of Musical Chairs, the sped-up national dances tumbled over each other, and instead of a white dove dropping the dress -- Wheeldon opted for Grimm -- a whole menagerie of fantastical beasts got involved.
The choreography for that whole dysfunctional family could have stepped out of a Christmas Pantomime show. It was intricate, hilarious, and there was too much of it. Sarah Van Patten and Frances Chung as the stepsisters stole the show everytime they bumped into each other. In a novel touch, Chung ended up with her own prince in Domitro, probably because, poor thing, she wore glasses. Both women clearly appreciated an opportunity at that rare thing in ballet -- comedy. Still how many times do you have to see these viragos descend on meek little Kotchekova? Overkill at its worst.
Yet to see Katita Waldo step back into her toe shoes -- she retired in 2010 -- as stepmother Hortensia was inspiring. A fabulous commedienne, she'll have another future in character roles with SFB. A brilliantly bumbling Damian Smith -- another acting dancer -- fell all over himself trying to catch his soused wife. Did that instigate his conversion into a dad?
While the choreography for the lovers flowed nicely, very little of it sent your teeth on edge for its imaginative power and the interpretive challenges it offered to the leads. This is supposed to be Cinderella's story not the stepsisters.
Wheeldon made a valiant attempt to respond to the somberness in Prokofiev's score, something Matthew Bourne did so successfully by setting his "Cinderella" during the Blitz. There is an eerie darkness to those gold-masked Fates (Daniel Deivison, Garen Scribner, Anthony Spaulding and Shane Wuerthner) acting like Bunraku puppeteers. While they are supportive of Cinderella, they also take away some of her autonomy. This seems in direct contradiction to Wheeldon's claim that he wanted his Cinderella to be an independent young woman. Nothing, at least as Kotchekova danced her, gave an indication of his having achieved that.
The choreography for the grand ball, with its participants so clearly stifled by their garments, seemed overly long -- probably Prokofiev's fault -- but Wheeldon's sweep and skill at handling the flow of its complex patterns kept it buoyant well enough. Throughout, Martin West guided the orchestra well through this oddly mesmerizing score.
It's unfortunate that this "Cinderella" leans so heavily on spectacle; Wheeldon, such a gifted choreographer, clearly wanted a splashy entertainment likely to bring back some of that huge financial investment. That it probably will. "Cinderella" will play New York next.