This past Saturday, I went with La Belle Chantal (or Chanterella as she decided to refer to herself for the evening) to the final program of the San Francisco Ballet’s 2013 Season. This production of Prokofiev’s Cinderella was a new one, a joint venture with the Dutch National Ballet choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon, who recently created Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland for The Royal Ballet in London. The plot departed in a number of ways from the traditional ballet, taking inspiration from both the Perrault and Grimm versions of the tale, as well as Rossini’s opera, La Cenerentola. So, while the basic story is quite familiar, I was happy I had read the synopsis ahead of time since some of the details were easy to miss: such as the fact that the prince and his childhood friend (the valet’s son) change places to deliver the ball invitations, or that they both arrive drunk at the ball. Also, one of the sisters is nicer than the other, but that doesn’t come across very clearly either, especially if you come in already thinking they are both mean.
While the overall production was impressive, at times the choreography seemed uninspired and the plot rather muddled, as if they threw all of their fantastic ideas together onto the stage and forgot about the dancing. I loved the humor of the piece, especially from Hortensia, the evil stepmother (Marie-Claire D’Lyse), and the two stepsisters, Edwina (Vanessa Zahorian) and Clementine (Dores Andre), but, like last year’s Don Quixote, I felt it spent too much time on laughs, especially to the detriment of Cinderella’s part, which (let’s face it) should be front and center. It’s sad when the sublime Yuan Yuan Tan is not given very much to do, especially when I just saw her as Tatiana in Onegin and know she can kill it.
In sum, when it worked, it really worked, but I spent the night going back and forth in my assessment and left thinking it could have been so much better.
I Loved It: The opening scene, a sort of prologue that relates the death of Cinderella’s mother and introduces the tree that sprouts from her grave, watered by Cinderella’s tears. The mother was beautifully danced by corps member Charlene Cohen, who so impressed me in Ibsen’s House.
I Loved It Not: The seven (yes, seven!) scenes in Act I. Traditionally, the first act jumps right into the preparations for the ball, first by Cinderella’s stepmother and stepsisters, and then with the Fairy Godmother. While I liked the first scene showing the death of Cinderella’s mother, I found the secondary prologue, showing the rambunctious nature of the young prince and his friend Benjamin, superfluous, although the staging sets us up for a mirror image of Cinderella fleeing the ball years later. The third scene, showing the introduction of Cinderella to her new stepmother is also unnecessary. The fourth scene, where the King explains to his son the importance of who he chooses to marry and his friend mocks the prospective brides (whose portraits on the walls become animated), was humorous, but again, not particularly necessary.
I Loved It: The fifth scene brings us to the proper start of the story, with Cinderella serving and being bullied by her family. When the Prince (Luke Ingham) arrives disguised as a beggar, he receives shoddy treatment by the stepmother and kindness from Cinderella; meanwhile, Benjamin (Taras Domitro), who is disguised as the Prince, gets the royal treatment from the stepsisters. Here, there is a lovely bit of choreography between Cinderella and the Prince that I quite liked.
I Loved It Not: Scenes six and seven involve Cinderella’s family leaving for the ball without her and the Fates, who have watched over her since her mother died, bringing her to the tree by her mother’s grave. Here is where things get a bit muddled. Four spirits emerge one after the other, each one representing a season from the original ballet: Lightness is spring, Generosity is summer, Mystery is autumn, and Fluidity is winter. The spirits teach Cinderella the steps she will need for the ball. However, you would never get that if you hadn’t read the program. And this is one place where I would have loved to see more creative choreography.
I Loved It: The tree. The tree during this whole section was extremely cool, changing with the seasons and at times enveloping the dancers. Eventually, wheels evolve from the branches and the Fates transform into horses to pull the chariot that emerges. From a visual perspective, this sequence was amazing.
I Loved It: The ball! The ball occupies the entirety of Act II and I loved it. When the curtain came down, I turned to Chanterella and said, “I take it all back!” The costumes of most of the guests were very lush—not quite pure jewel tones, but rather warm versions of dark green, blue, and purple. The soloists here, in the form of prospective brides from Bali, Russia, and Spain, came off quite well, but the real stars of this ball were the “clumsy” stepsisters—I can’t even imagine the technique it must require to dance badly well—and Cinderella’s stepmother, who ends up getting drunk and has a hilarious solo, before ripping off Cinderella’s mask and forcing her to flee the ball.
I Loved It Not: The ball was not without its problems. For one, neither Cinderella’s nor the Prince’s solo was particularly creative, nor was their pas de deux. The Prince’s solo was especially odd since he was dancing for at least four counts before his music began. Also, he looked like he was dancing in The Nutcracker. For all that the costumes in this act were pitch perfect, the tomato red color of the Prince’s outfit was one of two false notes, the other being the magenta dress of the Spanish dancer. They both looked cheap in comparison to everyone else.
I Loved It: The first scene of Act III and the line dance of musical chairs across the front of the stage as the Prince tries to fit the gold slipper on a motley crew of wanna-be princesses.
I Loved It Not: At the end of the first scene, the chairs rise slowly up to form an arch back in Cinderella’s home. Like many of the production elements, this seemed a little too complicated, and more fitting for an opera production. It didn’t work for me at all, but Chanterella thought it looked cool. And again, in the final wedding scene back at the tree, there was too much going on. Courtiers dressed as shepherdesses, really? It’s like they needed to use up leftover money in the costume budget or something.
I Loved It: The final pas de deux between Cinderella and the Prince. This is the type of fairytale romance we should have seen during the ball.
Cinderella runs through May 12 at the War Memorial Opera House; however, the entire run is sold out with only limited Standing Room tickets available for each performance.