I must have been fifteen: A little old, already, for the content, and yet the spectacle held my attention more than MacMillan’s “Romeo and Juliet,” which my mother had brought me to a few seasons before, driving us four hours from our Section 8 neighborhood in flat, brown Fresno, through the skyscrapers of San Francisco to the gilt War Memorial Opera House. The ballet this time was Michael Smuin’s “Peter and the Wolf.” The company was American Ballet Theatre. There were dancers dressed like animals. Costumes of bright orange and green, copious plumage. An easy-to-follow story, made all the more digestible with Bobby McFerrin providing the narration. A few years before, all through “Romeo and Juliet,” the harlot flailing around had overshadowed the love story and confounded me. But “Peter and the Wolf” was pure enjoyment. By matinee’s end, we’d had an ideal family day at the ballet, and the image of the dancer in pointe shoes as an antidote to life devoid of beauty took hold in my heart.
These days I have a mild aversion to ballets like “Peter and the Wolf.” I crave counterpoint, polyrhythm, formal complexity, emotional uncertainty, or at least a story ballet with a chops-busting Petipa-style pas de deux. Still I was heartened to finally catch San Francisco Ballet’s “Cinderella,” co-commissioned from Christopher Wheeldon with the Dutch National Ballet in 2012. Watching the rows of Bay Area children and parents bright-faced with pleasure, I wondered how many of these children would now return to the ballet, eyes opened beyond “Nutcracker,” for the rest of their lives. For these purposes, Wheeldon’s “Cinderella” is a near-perfect full-length family ballet, seamless and tasteful in spectacle, reasonably substantive, and gently funny.
This version of “Cinderella” is a wonder of dramatic integrity. Wheeldon worked with librettist Craig Lucas, using elements from the Brothers Grimm version of the tale published in 1812. Most touching of these is the magic tree that grows from Cinderella’s mother’s grave, watered by her daughter’s tears. As in the Grimm story, it is this tree that gives Cinderella her beautiful golden dress for the ball. Mercifully, departing from the Grimm story, the tree is not hacked down by Cinderella’s angry father, but presides over Cinderella’s eventual wedding to the prince, an ending that made me a little verklempt.
Wheeldon also enlisted MacArthur “genius award” puppeteer Basil Twist, who added Cinderella’s other helpers: Four masked Fates who guide Cinderella in shadow, and who assemble the floating wheels that, along with Daniel Brodie’s video projections and a billowing cape, make for the thrilling final image of Act I, as Cinderella’s carriage speeds her to the ball. These faceless four Fates actually dance some of the ballet’s most demanding choreography; it was good to see Max Cauthorn, Daniel Deivison-Oliveira, Steven Morse, and Alexander Reneff-Olson loudly cheered by the audience at curtain. Scenic designer Julian Crouch and lighting designer Natasha Katz also deserve ovation, for adding Harry Potter-worthy magic into every act, from the legion of chandeliers that bob above the ball as if possessed by spirits in Act II, to the chairs that rise to float over Cinderella’s kitchen in Act III.
Where this “Cinderella” also shines is in its comedy. Wheeldon, whose generation of Brits grew up on the wicked stepsisters-in-drag from Frederick Ashton’s version, has taken a seemingly more conservative approach to those characters, but introduced some ingenious touches. Here, one pert-nosed stepsister (played perfectly by Elizabeth Powell, who is becoming the company’s go-to vainglorious beauty) is truly nasty. The other, bedecked in thick-framed glasses (and danced by corps member Ellen Rose Hummel with breakout charm), is just doing her sibling’s bidding. Her nerdy innocence is rewarded when she’s noticed by the prince’s friend (the equally virtuosic and sweet Esteban Hernandez), and makes a love match by ballet’s end. Beware, though, the perils of sharing the stage with Sarah Van Patten. She played the cackling (and hungover) stepmother with Meryl Streep-level command; the afternoon became, for me, a study in her artistry.
So where does all this leave Cinderella and her prince? Sidelined in memory, I’m afraid to say. Our heroine here is just not a very interesting character. Despite Wheeldon’s purported effort to give her some agency, I didn’t sense any texture to her, at least as danced by Frances Chung, who certainly projects an innate kindness suited to the role. There is one nice moment in the Act One scene Wheeldon devised for the prince to meet Cinderella before the ball, when she vents her annoyance at her sisters with a quick impersonation, and the incognito prince (Joseph Walsh, movie-star handsome even when disguised as a beggar), eggs her on. But mostly she floats through the story wide-eyed and one-dimensional. And an early glimpse into the prince’s childhood doesn’t manage to give him texture, either.
In a limitation Wheeldon could do little to ameliorate, the music Prokofiev’s score gives to the love pas de deux is not very memorable. (I far prefer his score for “Romeo and Juliet,” which SFB will also dance this season.) These dances are a blur of sweeping ronde jambes and promenades, particularly a repeating one in which the arabesque leg swoops over the prince’s head. I suspect these are actually quite difficult to dance, and I admire Walsh and Chung in their seamlessness despite my wandering attention. More engaging choreographically are the four meaty solos Wheeldon devised for the season fairies (here called Spirits)—particularly the liquid-armed Summer solo (with grand pirouette finale!) danced with such simultaneous softness and power by Alexandre Cagnat on Saturday.
A world premiere by Trey McIntyre with another Prokofiev score, the famously challenging Piano Concerto #2 (can’t wait to see the indefatigable SF Ballet orchestra tackle it) lies just two weeks away as SF Ballet’s season continues. Dark and existentially probing, it is not a ballet for the children who left “Cinderella” giggling and twirling last Saturday afternoon. But might they come back for such a ballet in five or ten years? Might they stretch their new love with Balanchine’s “Jewels” this May? Odds are good. Wheeldon has served his purposes smartly and well.