Christopher Wheeldon’s Cinderella
Photo: Erik Tomasson

Christopher Wheeldon’s Cinderella

San Francisco Ballet

Artistic Director: Helgi Tomasson
Choreographer: Christopher Wheeldon
War Memorial Opera House
Jan. 21-Feb. 2, 2020
Reviewed Jan. 21, 2020
Sfballet.org

Christopher Wheeldon gives us a complex “Cinderella,” absent even a soupçon of “The Cinderella Complex” that feminist therapists pride themselves in vanquishing, but which others of their profession reluctantly accommodate to. Wheeldon sidelines the Charles Perrault version of the story in favor of the Grimm. He subs a squadron of male Fates swathed in Indigo for the doughy Fairy Godmother. He has Prince Guillaume swapping identities with Benjamin, friend of the Prince, and mounts an environmentally correct investiture ceremony to anoint Cinderella’s dear departed mother with “powers.” The assembled mourners resurrect her as a force of nature, barely containable in a sheltering tree that doubles and triples its girth, graveside.  It’s the kind of thing Shel Silverstein took to the bank with his children’s picture story, “The Giving Tree,” and it’s the plot turnkey in this libretto, as if there were some obvious correspondence between a lost-then-found glass slipper and Mother Nature showing up as a spirit tree. Lucky for us, but maybe not for Wheeldon, he hires Natasha Katz to light the show, and Julian Crouch for sets and unconventional costumes. Their hefty contributions become scene-stealing elements, and that’s not to mention the planting of glasses on the nose of  Stepsister Clementine (Ellen Rose Hummel) which bleat her as  myopic throughout.  He then adds divertissements-by-nation, the kind that embarrass one too many story ballets, and sets them spinning centrifugally, so that when the dancers finally stop, there’s a pileup Tower of Ballet Babel of marriageable pretenders of every duchy (and description), stepping over each other to attract the attention of the Prince.

If Wheeldon’s is the most comic Cinderella in memory, it also falls victim to a kitchen sink approach that lards the work with so much that is dramaturgically radical and visually stupefying, that the steps end up looking more like an afterthought than a platform for  pageantry. This is in spite of outstanding and committed dispatch by Frances Chung as Cinderella; Joseph Walsh as Prince Guillaume; Katita Waldo as Madame Mansard, the extravagantly cock-eyed optimist; and Sarah Van Patten as Stepmother Hortensia, whose cockeyed condition is instilled by what was earlier distilled. The choreography is of the rotational, lift-punctuated style that Wheeldon unfailingly favors. Done to a Prokofiev score, it can add intrigue if you’ve never seen “Romeo and Juliet.” On the other hand, if you have seen it, you could find yourself watching the Cinderella ballroom scene as if carried away by a wrinkle in time, wondering what could be keeping the Capulets and the Montagues?

You may also wonder, with so many other Cinderella traditions kicked to the curb, why does the most illusory one—marrying the prince–survive? Why doesn’t Cinderella, upon claiming the missing shoe,  do an Act III riff on “Megxit,” and grand jeté out of bounds, skirting Freed of London Dancewear, to head for a meet-up with her Prince Gil on a Heathrow runway, whereupon a Fairy Therapist appears, bearing two one-way Air Canada tickets to Toronto (in Coach).  That way, the happy couple could forfeit “defining” their relationship and still live happily ever after!

Toba Singer

Toba Singer, author of “Fernando Alonso, the Father of Cuban Ballet” (University Press of Florida 2013), and “First Position: a Century of Ballet Artists” (Praeger 2007), writes for international dance journals and websites, and has served as an advisor to the San Francisco Museum of Performance and Design. She was the University Press of Florida author representative at the 2013 Miami International Book Fair. “Fernando Alonso, the Father of Cuban Ballet” was nominated for the Latin American Student Association Bryce Award, the de la Torre Research and Dance Scholars Award, and the Commonwealth Club California Book Award.