San Francisco Ballet
David H. Koch Theater
New York, NY
October 24, 2013
By Carol Pardo
Copyright ©2013 by Carol Pardo
Christopher Wheeldon’s "Cinderella," a coproduction with the Dutch National Ballet, sold out its initial run by the San Francisco Ballet last May.The next logical step? Take it on tour, show it off and hope for the same results at the box office. This version, like so many others, uses the familiar Prokofiev score but everything else has been bulked up. Wheeldon has enlisted quite a posse to bring his vision to life; there are credits for sets, lights, costumes, the tree and carriage, and video projections—even the projection programmer gets a mention. A lot of energy and money have been expended to make this "Cinderella" stand out from the crowd. Yet, as the night went on, it was unclear whether Wheeldon & Co. were out to retell the fairy tale or subvert it.
The new libretto is by Craig Lucas. He and Wheeldon have set their sights beyond Perrault’s fairy tale, borrowing from the Brothers Grimm, Rossini’s "La Cenerentola," and Mark Twain’s "The Prince and the Pauper," with a nod to filial duty straight out of "Swan Lake." There is no fairy godmother, but there is a magical sheltering tree and four Fates who not only protect and partner Cinderella but also do windows and most of the rest of the housekeeping.
As the story begins, we meet the young Cinderella, at play with her parents and watch her biological mother die, bloody handkerchief in hand. We will later see her stepmother throw up just before the Prince’s arrival on the morning after the ball where she got wasted. This may be true to life, but such pointed realism breaks the spell of the traditional tale. Its magic, born of inference and empathy, evaporates. Meanwhile up at the palace we are introduced to the king and queen and two rambunctious young boys, the prince and his best bud Benjamin, the valet’s son. The children grow up (chronologically at least). Cinderella’s father remarries. The prince’s parents press him to choose a bride. His reaction? To swap identities with his childhood friend. Once everyone heads to the ball things proceed at a more leisurely and familiar pace (retching not withstanding). Cinderella gets her happy ending but so does Edwina, the more timid stepsister (the one who wears glasses natch). She ends up with Benjamin.
Cinderella’s father is a decent man who loves his daughter (as the first scene shows). The prince and his sidekick only grow up once marriage is on the horizon. This may be accurate, but it makes for a long evening among off-putting characters. The step-family, meant to be unsympathetic, is simply annoying. The princesses (Russian, Spanish and Balinese), presented during the ball as prospective brides, are man hungry to the point of misogyny. But the biggest problem is the conception of Cinderella herself who refuses an overture from her new step-family and seals her fate. The mulish, not the meek, inherit the earth. And it’s hard to consider downtrodden a girl who has four Fates putting out the elbow grease.
Damian Smith, nearing the end of his performing career, was a tender and believable father. As Benjamin, Hansuke Yamamoto danced up a storm, enjoyed the joke of the swapped identities and showed that proximity had given him more than a little princely bearing. In his debut, tall blond Tiit Helimets had the presence for a prince but also had a lot of fun as the adolescent prankster. Equally tall and blond, Sarah Van Patten as Cinderella was too big for a role that cries out for a soubrette. But neither of them was helped by their choreography, full of sharp angles and slides to the floor. And although Wheeldon did a beautiful job of setting the stage for the pas de deux,both classical adagios were two-dimensional and constricting, rather than resonant expressions of transcendence and love triumphant. The production, overstuffed like a Thanksgiving turkey, tried too hard. The effort expended to reexamine the tale of Cinderella swamped a danceable story and its universal theme.