San Francisco Ballet
David H. Koch Theater
New York, New York
October 25 and 27, 2013
By Michael Popkin
Copyright © 2013 by Michael Popkin
With all the versions of “Cinderella” out there, from Rogers and Hammerstein to Frederick Ashton, did we need another three-act ballet? By integrating dance with Broadway production values to create an encompassing spectacle, Christopher Wheeldon’s new production for San Francisco Ballet answered “Yes.”
The joint commission between SFB and the Dutch National Ballet made its debut in Amsterdam last fall and San Francisco in the spring. The six performances during SFB’s tour to Lincoln Center were New York’s first look at the ballet.
There’s plenty of good dance in this new “Cinderella,” but it manages to escape the shadow of Frederick Ashton’s famous version for Moira Shearer (still widely available on video with a definitive performance by Margot Fonteyn) by subordinating its dance elements to an overarching, Andrew Lloyd Webber-type dramatic conception. The theatrical experience feels more akin to “Phantom of the Opera” or “Billy Elliot” than traditional ballet.
Projections by Daniel Brodie immersed the audience in a video environment right from the first few notes of Prokofiev’s score, when a summer sky full of fleecy clouds, projected downstage on a scrim, dissolved into a rustling flight of birds. As the music segued to the dirge-like leitmotif that Prokofiev returns to for memories of Cinderella’s mother, the scrim turned transparent, and revealed Cinderella’s family before her mother’s death. The three danced a few steps; held a tensely correct arabesque like something out of Tudor’s “Jardin Aux Lilas;” and the action proceeded, flowing along with the score.
A consistent interplay between detail in the foreground and generic suggestion at the edges and rear is the key design concept. Whimsical elements are included in otherwise realistic ensembles. Julian Crouch’s sumptuous costumes are period Victorian, mostly pastel in color, and elaborately constructed; meanwhile the background is a world saturated with strong color and light. The four Fates that replace the traditional fairy godmother, costumed in deep blue but wearing silver makeup, look like refugees from “Star Trek.” The red and gold palace recalls Thomas Sully’s décor for his famous portrait of the young Queen Victoria. But the architectural details are actually columns and entablatures that were moved about by what first looked like ornamental suits of armor, but animated and shifted the columns to change the scene. For Cinderella’s home, a table and chairs, placed diagonally opposite a fireplace and mantle (with some cooking utensils behind) sketched rather than painted an interior. The four Fates moved the table around, creating spaces for dance and dumb-show acting.
The transformation scene at the end of Act One, directed and designed by the renowned puppeteer Basil Twist, was a particular coup de théâtre. A fairy tale tree grew up to dominate the stage, creating a magical glade. In a moonlit night conjured up by Natasha Katz’s skillful lighting, Wheeldon first staged a gorgeous and relatively traditional divertissement for the four seasons. It’s ballet d’entrée with successive groups representing each season. But then characters straight out of Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking Glass” joined in: whimsical birds and imaginary creatures of the night, including a grotesque potato-headed couple. At the end of the scene Cinderella, costumed in a golden gown, departed for the ball under a windblown cape, in a carriage with garlands of branches for wheels that was drawn by the Fates, who donned horse-head masks. This magical scene, coming after the earlier domestic narrative of Cinderella’s abuse at the hands of her jealous stepmother and stepsisters, suggested that nature itself - powerful, beneficent, Pan-like and pagan – was coming to Cinderella’s aid. It provoked prolonged applause at both performances.
Like the scenery that was at once highly realized and schematic at the edges, Wheeldon’s characters also took turns being detailed and generic. Unexpectedly, the leading protagonists, Cinderella and the prince, remained cardboard cutouts as characters but were given choreography that was incredibly challenging. Three or four expressions sufficed for Cinderella’s role: sad reverie at the loss of her mother and her isolation in the family; moonstruck joy at meeting the prince; and forgiveness and mature happiness at the end.
If the lovers were formulaic as characters, they still got three beautifully constructed pas de deux that progressively built in force over the final two acts of the drama, culminating in a deeply happy betrothal duet in the shade of Basil Twist’s magical tree. Athletic, contemporary, and very tender, the dances had the couple circling each other, seeming to swim in the richly colored, French orchestration of Prokofiev’s score, with the circles leading to dramatic press lifts, each of which was different and displayed the ballerina magnificently. Yet effective as they were within the piece the duets themselves remained generic because they revealed nothing about either character. Cinderella and her love were no more specifically developed dancing than acting.
For those who came to the theater remembering the touching pathos of Fonteyn in the film of the Ashton version and how the content of her dances filled out Cinderella’s personality, it’s something of a shock. But it’s precisely how Wheeldon distances himself from Ashton and the Royal Ballet antecedent. Even more surprisingly, making these characters generic doesn't interfere at all with the ballet’s effectiveness or the strength of the happy ending.
Still more contrary to expectations, after treating the leading couple as stereotypes, Wheeldon then lavished dramatic detail (both character and dance) on the characterization of the usually cartoonish supporting roles: Benjamin, the prince’s friend, Cinderella’s stepmother Hortensia, and her the two stepsisters, Edwina and Clementine.
Still, the main roles had to carry the ballet. Four principal casts danced, and among them those led by Maria Kochetkova and Joan Boada (opening night and the concluding Sunday matinee) and Vanessa Zahorian, partnered by her husband Davit Karapetyan (on Thursday night) displayed an interesting contrast of height, line, and style.
Kochetkova filled in the sketchiness of her character first of all by looking the part. She knew what was expected of her: at times little more than “come stage front, kneel, and lift your eyes;” and with those delicate features, beautiful eyes and melting expression, the role read perfectly. She has ideal proportions, beautiful legs and lines in arabesque, and dances much bigger than her petite size.
She and Boada also made the challenging lifts look effortless. They were some of the most complex partnering Wheeldon has ever devised: a complicated press lift started with Kochetkova in developpé and Boada catching her up by taking a hold of her thigh and calf, before whipping her into a pose in a brisé line above his head. It all looked looked natural and fluent.
Zahorian and Karapetyan are taller and offered longer lines and more mystery, but seemed to be working hard at the lifts. The trouble he had with her was surprising, given the fact that they are physically well-matched as well as married. Zahorian was lovely, with a strong, flexible back. Well turned-out, she pressed her heels to the floor and gave a sense of weight, reminding you of Ulanova in Lavrovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet,” despite the beautiful dark hair. Still, the lifts are an integral element of Wheeldon’s conception. The concluding one in the betrothal pas, where the prince spins Cinderella in arabesque across his shoulders, while he retreats on a diagonal, turning and alternately lowering and raising her, looked very insecure.
The two Benjamins – Taras Domitro in Kochetkova’s cast and Hansuke Yamamoto in Zahorian’s – were both stellar. It’s a peculiarity of the production that Benjamin gets the most interesting steps: double tours in split jumps as well as grand jetés in stag leaps or attitude. Both men showed impressive elevation and made this sunny character, who eventually falls in love with the more shy stepsister, immensely appealing. In Clara Blanco, Yamamoto on Thursday night had a Clementine who matched his appeal. With impeccable lines and articulate dancing that read even at the back of the house, Blanco was also impressive leading the Spring/Lightness entrance in Kochetkova’s cast.
But Sarah Van Patten stole the show with her beautifully detailed comic portrayal of the bigger, more aggressive sister, Edwina. What looked like mostly slapstick became witty and graceful handled by Van Patten. The character had subtlety, at once individual and a type, like something out of the commedia dell’arte. With great instincts for the stage and audience, everything that Van Patten did looked like it had a purpose. She used her eyes and facial expressions to brilliant effect. In an awkward pose with her legs split wide and her bottom thrust out, hovering just above the floor, she had the strength and control to stop and balance; the move looked like it was still ballet; then, before falling over, she shot first her partner, and then the audience an arch, delicious look. It was even something chic. Grotesque comedy acquired a delicate grace. Van Patten’s a true star, no doubt about it.
But from top to bottom, principals to the corps de ballet, SFB looked world-class in this work. The ballet has a large cast and even deploys some children from SFB’s school. Wheeldon’s production is not only well calculated to show off depth of style and training, its impression depends upon it.
For nearly fifteen years now Wheeldon has been talking about collaboration as his essential creative process. In this work, more than in anything else he’s done, he walks that walk. Except for Van Patten’s rendition of Edwina, neither the characters nor their choreography in this ballet was particularly memorable in itself; but integrated into the whole, everything was hard to forget. On first viewing of Act One, there was a period of adjustment. Could all these disparate elements truly coalesce? But by the time the second act rolled around you went with it. Prokofiev’s music, the videos, scenes and steps flowed by and you realized that this is a different Cinderella. Leaving the theater, the buzzing crowd at the end of both performances, many of them children, enjoyed it for what it was. Wheeldon had taken the oldest of chestnuts and made it his own.
Photographs (top to bottom) of San Francisco Ballet's "Cinderella" by Erik Tomasson (c) courtesy of San Francisco Ballet: (1) and (2) Maria Kochetkova as Cinderella; (3) Kochetkova and Joan Boada as Cinderella and Prince Guillaume; (4) Kochetkova with the four Fates; (5) Taras Domitro as Benjamin (friend to the prince); and (6) Kochetkova, Frances Chung and Vanessa Zahorian as Cinderella and her stepsisters Clementine and Edwina.