San Francisco Ballet in Wheeldon's Cinderella© // © Lindsay Thomas

Christopher Wheeldon’s Cinderella

San Francisco Ballet

Written by:
Toba Singer
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“Those who’ve seen us

Know that not a thing could come between us

Many men have tried to split us up, but no one can

Lord help the mister who comes between me and my sister

And lord help the sister, who comes between me and my man . . .” from “Sisters,” by Irving Berlin

Jennifer Stahl as Stepmother Hortensia never misses a comic beat in a Cinderella production where beats resonate as follows: first time, tragic; second time farcical; third time (after the ominous midnight hour is tolled by a musician clocking time and a half), both tragic and farcical. Pity poor Isaac Hernández as the reluctant Prince Guillaume! He misses no beats either, compelled to lift Cinderella (Misa Kuranaga) on nearly every upbeat and comfort her on every downbeat. The ups and downs never quit as dancers step bravely into the familiar Prokofiev score that thrills until its repeated manipulations past the midnight hour turn it into something of a battered pumpkin.

Moments intended to prompt tears can instead wax quizzical, such as Cinderella dancing on her mother’s grave as a profession of mourning. Then there are the meant-to-be comic moments, as when a pair of beastie-boy shorties humiliate the imperious Madame Mansard (Katita Waldo) with kicks, swats, and uncouth attempts to disrobe her. In the wake of various ballet #metoo misogyny scandals, their ungainly thrusts suddenly take on a creeps-in-training look.

The stepsisters Edwina and Clementine, danced by Elizabeth Powell and Ellen Rose Hummel, turn sibling rivalry into sibling ribaldry, as the choreography goes semi-graphic, or is laced with ballet insider jokes, such as milked fouetté turns hobbled by bad feet or forced arch échappé collapses mid-seconde, all underscored by determinedly scrunched or mortified facial expressions. Despite the nuclear energy they amass, their sisterhood is powerless to deter Cinderella from recognizing the decency of Prince Guillaume, even as he switches identities with his gritty friend Benjamin to escape his royal social obligations, and more urgently, to pursue the humble yet intrepid Cinderella.


In the Palace ballroom scene, 19th Century gown confections come at us in the athletic blues, greens, and purples favored by the likes of Nike (Julian Crouch). Choreography leans on tiny prances, normally seen in the studio as barre foot warmup preludes to class, or arms swaying left to right overhead, and lifts where women hold a leg in á la seconde. Given the three quarter time score, balancé en tournant becomes both a highlight and stock default setting.

Lapses in the production that derive from its wholesale plunging of mannered sequences from the 19th Century into the environmental and “magical” affectations and conceits of the New Age 21st, are offset by discreet flights of imagination and virtuoso work. Stahl is the comic spine. Her work is fresh yet rooted in a preternatural instinct for fun and the funny, bolstered by fielding of the polar opposites of over- and underplaying the pathetically ambitious stepmother with substance abuse issues. In the role of Benjamin, friend to the Prince, Esteban Hernández delivers his tour de force. His Harpo and Beppo-like timing, charm, and physical-comedy sense, confer the full-out dispatch that the best choreography in the show deserves. The hunt for the lost slipper’s owner assembles a rogues gallery of characters and resonates as a timeless delight. This, Cinderella’s signature scene, and the substitution of The Fates (led evangelically by Steven Morse) for a Fairy Godmother, sets it apart from its precursors. The construction of the coach from seemingly random elements in preceding scenes that enigmatically yet visibly takes place between the scrim and our very eyes, is nothing less than the brilliant accomplishment of Basil Twist. Such technical marvels and the dancers’ committed work, offer a substantial frame for material that can benefit from a few blue pencil edits steadied by the eminence grise bearer of mature taste for the artistic nutrients that feed laudable production values.

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