San Francisco Ballet
David H. Koch Theater
New York, New York
October 23, 25, 26E, 2013
-- by Jerry Hochman
The story of Cinderella has been around a long time. Its tale of good triumphing over evil, in the form of a sweet-tempered girl condemned to servitude by wicked people – but who, by her good nature and a little metaphysical help, ultimately finds fortune and happiness and a Prince with whom she’ll live happily ever after, has been a basic and essential morality tale in varying incarnations in cultures around the world for more than two millennia. A fresh version of this story by Christopher Wheeldon for the San Francisco Ballet had its New York premiere on Wednesday at the David H. Koch Theater, where it continues through Sunday. I saw three of the performances.
From the beginning of the story, regardless of the artistic format, you want Cinderella to overcome her misfortune and triumph in the end. Mr. Wheeldon’s “Cinderella” engenders the same feeling: it’s so sweet a production that you want it to be an unqualified triumph. That it isn’t is disappointing, and that the ultimate reason for the disappointment is the uneven choreography is ironic, since it is the one aspect of this “Cinderella” that is exclusively attributable to him. But while it is not as good as it might have been, this “Cinderella” is an extraordinary visual feast, and should be seen for the magical production alone.
The production is the real star of this “Cinderella,” and I’ll discuss it in detail below. But the central character who gives the production life is, of course, Cinderella, and each of the three Cinderellas I saw put her unique stamp on the role. Maria Kochetkova, who danced the role on Wednesday, gave a finely executed, technically flawless performance. But it was bland: I saw two emotions – subdued sad and subdued happy, with nothing in between. There was no excitement. I thought that this understatement was built into the role’s concept – but subsequent performances showed that this was not the case. Based on what I’d seen of her, I anticipated Yuan Yuan Tan’s Cinderella to be liquid porcelain – pure and serene. On the contrary, Ms. Tan filled the role with emotional expression to complement her inherently expressive technique. Hers was perhaps the ultimate ballerina Cinderella. But for me, the most engaging of the three was Vanessa Zahorian on Friday. While not as correct as Ms. Kochetkova, or as luxuriantly sensuous as Ms. Tan, Ms. Zahorian was a more natural Cinderella. Hers was the Cinderella next door, as inviting and welcome as a fireplace on a chilly night.
This is not your mother’s “Cinderella.” While the basic story is familiar, and the central events of the story (the wonders that enable Cinderella to attend the Prince’s Ball; the Ball itself; and the Prince’s successful search for the girl who wore the golden toeshoe (a glass slipper is so 2nd millennium) are glorious, many familiar details have been changed, and unfamiliar additions have been made. Essentially, Mr. Wheeldon and his creative associates have taken a little from an assortment of previous incarnations of the story, added a little of this (“Swan Lake”), a little of that (any number of stories about ‘trading places’, like “The Prince and the Pauper”), some sight gags and bathroom humor, and created a “Cinderella” with a backstory and a secondary romance, one that is light-hearted and sumptuous and reasonably inoffensive.
In this version, a prologue and opening scene show the death of Cinderella’s mother, Cinderella grieving at her mother’s gravestone, and the emergence of a tree from behind the grave. [The use of a tree as force in the story is not unique. A date tree is central to the Italian version of the story, which preceded by several decades the more familiar 1697 French version by Charles Perrault; and a ‘wishing tree’ that grows by Cinderella’s mother’s grave is the focus of a later version by the Brothers Grimm.] In this introductory scene we are also introduced to new characters, four creepy-looking men in dark costumes and gold-embossed faces called Fates, who collectively represent….Fate.
Subsequently, we are introduced to the Prince, ‘Guillaume’ (well, it’s French, and probably sounds romantic…and Desire was already taken), as a boy, cavorting with his friend, the son of the King’s valet/personal assistant/master of ceremonies. The friend is named Benjamin, which doesn’t sound at all French or romantic, but fits as the Prince’s upstairs/downstairs second banana (and does double-duty as a “Swan Lake” reference). The two boys exchange sophomoric pleasantries with Madame Mansard, the Prince’s ‘dancing mistress’, whose cups runneth over. The valet looks down upon Ms. Mansard, literally, and the Prince’s parents look down on their son for displaying such foolishness.
We then see Cinderella as an older girl, still grieving over her mother’s grave (which now sports a substantial looking tree), and being introduced to her father’s new wife, Hortensia, and her new stepsisters, Edwina and Clementine. Cinderella is quickly reduced to the status of servant in the new household.
Meanwhile, back at the castle, the now grown-up Prince is still cavorting with the now grown-up Benjamin. Perhaps as a consequence of this inappropriate tom-foolery, his father and mother (King Alfred and Queen Charlotte) (there it is – Guillaume’s mother was French) decide that Guillaume must marry a girl just like the girl that married all the dear old ancestral dads, and whose frighteningly accurate portraits hang on the palace wall. [There’s no cross-dressing in this production – but one of the portraits, perhaps a backhanded homage to Sir Frederick Ashton, looks like a cross between Benny Hill in drag and Mr. Wheeldon.] The King and Queen have already decided to throw a Ball at which the Prince will make his choice, and give Guillaume a stack of invitations to deliver to all the women in the kingdom. Appalled at the notion of having to marry just anyone (and perhaps just a little piqued because his mother gave him invitations rather than a crossbow), Guillaume, together with his friend, hatch a plot to change places when they deliver the invitations. Guillaume will be dressed as a beggar, and Benjamin as the Prince.
And then, after all this, the ballet begins to come to life. The beggar and Cinderella fall in love, sort of, as do Clementine, the nicer stepsister, and Benjamin, the counterfeit prince. Hortensia, evil stepmother that she is, runs off with Cinderella’s invitation to the Ball. But not to fear: the Fates hatch a plan. They gather all the spirits to teach Cinderalla how to dance. Then, together with weird-looking characters from the kingdom and with the help of that Tree, they replace Cinderella’s simple-looking frock with a beautiful gown. Well, it’s a pretty dress, but why quibble. Suddenly, quicker than you can say Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo, they then create the carriage that will take Cinderella to the Ball. The overall aura of dark magic is part Disney, part Tim Burton. To describe the carriage creation, borne in a whirlwind from within the Tree (the Tree being a surrogate Fairy Godmother) as a breathtaking coup de theatre would be an understatement. [The tree and carriage sequence is separately credited, and was created by famed puppeteer Basil Swift.]
The carriage creation is the highlight, but it is one of many beautiful and extraordinary images that permeate this peace. For example, the Ballroom has chandeliers that are lit by courtiers, and then wondrously light themselves and move up and down in celebration. The starlit evening sky is gorgeous, as are the blocks of color created by the costumes for the spirits and for the attendees at the Ball. The brief scene of the Prince and Benjamin trying to fit Cinderella’s shoe on everyone in the kingdom is both simply done and hilarious, and culminates in the chairs being lifted and forming a chair rainbow over Cinderella’s kitchen. [Scenic and Costume Design by Julian Crouch; Lighting Design by Natasha Katz, and Projection Design by Daniel Bodie.]
As good as the staging looks, there are several ideas that would have been better left on the cutting room floor: among others, the boys’ horseplay, annoyingly repeated when they’ve already grown; the creation of Madame Mansard (why bother?); the deceased mother flapping her arms to mimic the blackbirds projected on the scrim that signal the ballet’s beginning; the kitchen table that turns for no reason; and did we really need to see Hortensia beat Cinderella over the head with a serving spoon? But the only facet of Mr. Wheeldon’s production that I have significant difficulty with is one that is critical to his vision of the story: the Fates. It’s not the choreography for them, which is ok, or the execution by the multiple casts I saw – it’s the concept itself. The Fates help Cinderella with her chores – they help her serve meals, clean up – at times while she’s doing nothing. Sort of undercuts her toil and suffering. More critical, however, is that here the Fates control everything. So why bother? What good does Cinderella being sweet and good etc do if it’s Fate that brings her and her Prince together? The message is that things happen because fate makes them happen – not exactly the message this fairy tale is supposed to deliver.
And then there’s the choreography. Mr. Wheeldon has moments of brilliance here – the crescendo of movement in the Ball (although some of that movement looks bizarre); certain of the choreography for Benjamin; a hilarious (and totally out of place) dance of exotic would-be brides (a cross between the divertissement in Act II of “Swan Lake” and the Arabian Dance in Alexei Ratmansky’s “Nutcracker”); Cinderella’s solo; and, most significantly, the wonderful little vignette of Cinderella in her kitchen dancing with the Beggar (Guillaume in disguise), with her feet on his feet, moving as he moves, while they both begin to fall in love with each other. But the rest is ordinary – and from Mr. Wheeldon, one expects more. The solo for Guillaume (part of a pas de deux with Cinderella) is uninspired. The dances for the Spirits (who teach Cinderella dance steps) are ok, but could have been developed more: these teachings presumably are repeated during Cinderella’s dance at the Ball, which happens in the subsequent Act, but it’s difficult to connect the dots from the teaching to the steps that Cinderella eventually dances.
But most important, the duets between Cinderella and the Prince are underwhelming. For this choreography, Mr. Wheeldon had a problem. Cinderella and her Prince aren’t Romeo and Juliet: it’s sweet love, not passionate love, so some level of understatement is necessary. But Mr. Wheeldon has choreographed such duets previously (e.g. “Carousel, A Dance”; “Estancia”) to greater success. Here, it’s by the numbers, and except for the Prince’s sweeping Cinderella off the stage in a series of consecutive swirls at the end of one of their duets, it’s just – ‘aww, that’s nice’; rather than ‘auuwwh, it’s sooo beautiful’. [Appropriately, after Cinderella and the Prince are wed, all assembled audibly sigh: ‘aww’.] For a ballet as impressive-looking as this, something more is necessary – maybe something closer to awe.
At Wednesday’s performance, Joan Boada was Maria Kochetkova’s Guillaume, and Taras Domitro was Benjamin. Mr. Boada looked somewhat stiff and weighty. Mr. Domitro (who repeated the role yesterday), was marvelously comic and executed his more imaginative choreography very well. Saturday’s Guillaume was Luke Ingham, a soloist, who had more presence than Mr. Boada but missed some partnering connections with Ms. Tan. The best of the Princes was Friday’s Davit Karapetyan, who was not only confident-looking (as were Mr. Boada and Mr. Igham), but was also less starchy and more real, and he partnered Ms. Zahorian effortlessly. Hansuke Yamamoto’s Benjamin, although not as polished, matched Mr. Domitro in spirited execution. His presence in Friday’s cast perfectly balanced Mr. Karapetyan and Ms. Zahorian.
Ms. Zahorian also danced Edwina (the ‘wink/nod’ bad stepsister) at the Wednesday and Saturday performances, as did Sasha De Sola on Friday. Each was a delightfully nasty spoiled brat. While soloists Clara Blanco on Friday and Dores Andre on Saturday did a fine job as the good stepsister Clementine, Frances Chung’s performance in the same role on Wednesday was a cut above; her performance was a fully-developed comedic gem. Marie-Claire D’Lyse, a member of the corps, was fine as the overbearing and often inebriated Hortensia.
Finally, I must acknowledge the outstanding conducting at all three performances by SFB’s Music Director and Principal Conductor, Martin West. I was prepared to state that the SFB orchestra played every bit as well as the New York City Ballet orchestra, which I consider to be the finest ballet orchestra that I’ve heard – until I realized that the orchestra that Mr. West conducted was the NYCB orchestra.
Mr. Wheeldon’s “Cinderella” is a gentle, funny valentine to fairy tale ballets. It’s lovely to watch, was danced very well by the SFB dancers, and is delightful ballet theater that's enjoyable for all ages. For all its faults, in the overall scheme of things they’re relatively minor, and I look forward to seeing it, and SFB, again when they both return to New York.