San Francisco Ballet is riding high this season, cruising onward from a new works festival that yielded some real keepers; a “Giselle” freshly energized by new artistic director Tamara Rojo’s coaching; and a mixed bill that scored a hit with the stage premiere of Myles Thatcher’s youthful “Colorforms.” Recently retired artistic director Helgi Tomasson handled all this programming before he stepped down, and it was surely smart of him, box-office-wise, to schedule Christopher Wheeldon’s family friendly “Cinderella” to coincide with spring break. A packed Wednesday night house was clearly delighted by the whole spectacle. I regret, then, to confess an unpopular opinion: I find this “Cinderella” truly boring. But I saw it again to witness soloist Isabella DeVivo’s first chance at a star full-length role, and I’m glad I did.
It’s an interesting time to talent-watch at SF Ballet with Rojo so new in command: How much will the roster shake up when hires and departures are announced later this month, and who will benefit? (Already the changes have begun: Dores André, an MVP-level principal, just announced that she and Max Cauthorn, a greener principal with exquisite technique, are decamping to Ballett Zürich.)
Ten years into her career, DeVivo is well positioned. Trained at the School of American Ballet and SFB, she’s a precise technician with fabulous feet. In Balanchine, she has musicality and crisp attack, and in Forsythe works she projects a playful sense of freedom. Her “Cinderella” performance (I caught her second of two shows) proves she can hold the stage for an entire evening.
DeVivo’s magic powers for this role were unaffected sincerity and an easy, wide smile that reads to the balconies. The breakout ballerina moment came when she stood at the lip of the stage, the loud horns of the Prokofiev score blaring, DeVivo’s rib cage rising and falling with deep breaths as she slowly lit up with the realization that yes, this being-the-center-of-the-ball-thing was really happening. Her variations in the ball scene—to my mind, the only really satisfying dance-y passages in this production—were a sustained dream of soft arms and floor-skimming delicacy. Even her fast circle of turns seemed to ride on a cloud.
It helped that her prince was Joseph Walsh, seasoned in the role (and practiced in the tricky partnering with a repeated arabesque promenade that swings over his head, whereupon he has to let go and quickly re-grip the ballerina’s waist, underhanded). Wheeldon’s take on “Cinderella” has Prince Guillaume disguise himself as a beggar as he accompanies his sidekick friend Benjamin to deliver the ball invitations, and DeVivo and Walsh were particularly charming in that Charlie Chaplin-esque first meeting, as she danced with her feet atop his. Where DeVivo shows room for more growth is in fully imagining the little transition moments that otherwise become perfunctory entrances and exits. Why does Cinderella send the charming beggar out the door, and what is she feeling as she does so? Can those smaller parting moments at the ball become emotional gestures? (This is the kind of full imagining of every moment that Sasha De Sola, the unofficial queen principal of the 2023 season, excels at.)
Co-commissioned by Dutch National Ballet and SFB in 2012 and first danced in San Francisco in 2013, Wheeldon’s “Cinderella” is well known at this point, so I won’t indulge in gripes, other than to admit I don’t understand how Cinderella’s stepmother belatedly identifies Cinderella at the ball, or why there’s no dramatic build through the scene to that moment. (Kudos to a commanding Elizabeth Mateer as the drunken villainess, though.)
OK, one more gripe: I wish the “four seasons” variations in what the Disney-raised public-at-large knows as the Fairy Godmother scene (though in Wheeldon’s production the Fairy Godmother is replaced by puppeteer Basil Twist’s animated tree)—I wish these dances were more formally presented so that the classical technique lovers among us could take in the dancing without Cinderella entwining with it all. But even in an orange wig and with Cinderella chasing him about, Cavan Conley, a soloist, brought his distinctive charisma as Autumn, and Julia Rowe, also still soloist, lent her flair for phrasing to Spring. There’s an awful lot of rising talent here for Rojo to choose among when the roster gets rearranged for 2024.