The sold-out run of the U.S. premiere of Christopher Wheeldon’s Cinderella brought a modern fairytale to life on the War Memorial Opera House stage in San Francisco. This much anticipated production revived a classic fairytale that both appeals to today’s audiences with an appropriate nod to its past, with an updated libretto by Craig Lucas that adds interest to the age-old story. Costume and scenic design by Julian Crouch is equally spare with clean lines as well as expansive in scope, which adds both intimacy and luxury to this new production. All these production elements, including the choreography, complements the sumptuous and dark score by Sergei Prokofiev, played by the San Francisco Ballet orchestra and conducted by Ermanno Florio in the Wednesday May 8 production that I saw, which was worth the price of admission alone.
Wheeldon’s choreography fills in the normally perfunctory plotline-moments with interesting twists and turns that continually engages the mind and heart, with the classic Balanchinian traits of speed and heartaching musicality. Experimentation with both creative partnering challenges and delights the audiences throughout the production. There is a particularly lovely pas de deux at the end of Cinderella with her prince under a tree, and although they had fallen in love at the ball, you get the sense that they are truly falling in love as they as dancing under no false identity for the first time. The variations of the “spirits” in Act I were colored by the seasons that each variation represented, keeping to the tradition of the classic ballet but also adding the twist that each variation “taught” Cinderella a dance move she could use at the ball. Each variation was charming and delightful, danced by soloists Clara Blanco, Jaime Garcia Castilla, Hansuke Yamamoto, and Sasha DeSola.
However, I do think that Wheeldon is a better choreographer than storyteller; the beginning of the production stalls a bit with brief scenes and quick scenery changes that is disorienting. There are quirky production elements such as a bevy of floating chairs and the appearance of tree gnomes which add a touch of fantasy but appear a little out of context. There are also the four “Fates”, danced by Gaetano Amico, Daniel Deivison, Anthony Spaulding, and Shane Wuerthner, who make the most out of this difficult but mostly thankless part, which mostly requires overseeing the important plot points and partnering as they are masked. But overall, this production serves as a stunning vehicle for his choreography, heightened by the sumptuous Prokofiev score.
Yuan Yuan Tan lit up the stage as Cinderella, playing the youthful and kind heroine who uses her fluid limbs and speed to the fullest to highlight the wonders of Wheeldon’s choreography. She was partnered by the fresh-faced Luke Ingaham as the Prince Guillaume, who danced with more youthfulness than royalty. He danced with broad strokes in his phrasing, and he often took his time in the air which lent a mellow air to his dancing. It was also great to see Katita Waldo back on the stage as the droll Stepmother Hortensia, with an amusing interlude of a drunken solo during the royal ball. The roles of the stepsisters were danced by Vanessa Zahorian and Dores Andre, which made most of the slapstick elements but didn’t quite rise to meet the comedic demands of the roles, with Andre more of a natural fit than the understated Zahorian. Garen Scribner danced the role of Benjamin (the Prince’s friend) in his last performance with the SF Ballet, with his usual elegant carriage that may have been more fitting as the prince rather than a valet’s son. His dancing will be sorely missed by SF audiences, and it is our loss that the company is losing an amazing and unique dancer.
In a single production, Cinderella manages to delight its audience with a modern retelling of a classic fairytale that highlights Wheeldon’s sparkling choreography. The production is especially arresting on a company like SF Ballet that is so used to the speed and style of Wheeldon’s choreography, and will no doubt be a staple in the company’s repertoire for years to come.