Christopher Wheeldon's new Cinderella made its U.S. premiere to a packed audience at the War Memorial Opera House May 3. With lavish sets and extravagant costumes designed by Julian Crouch, San Francisco Ballet delivers the anticipated fantasy of the fairy tale ballet and more.
The ballet begins with the serene projection of blue skies and birds over a scrim under which Cinderella's backstory is given in concise strokes: her mother coughs, a handkerchief blooms with red, and away she floats like a Christmas angel. After a brief foray into the castle, where the child prince Guillaume and his pal Benjamin, the valet's son, make mischief with their dancing instructor, we are whisked into the story proper when Cinderella meets her new stepmother and stepsisters over her mother's grave, from which a tree watered with Cinderella's tears has grown.
Played in drag in Frederick Ashton's 1948 version of the ballet, Wheeldon's stepsisters -- the haughty Edwina, danced with smirking success by Sarah Van Patten, and spunky, bespectacled Clementine, danced by the endearingly hilarious Frances Chung -- take center stage from their first entrance, whether bickering or sashaying through comically competitive routines. They might be villains, but Cinderella isn't so sweet herself, flinging her new sisters' proffered bouquet disdainfully at stepmother Hortensia's feet.
The relationships among the women read as lessons in cruelty: Cinderella's rejection leads to Hortensia's abuse. Edwina imitates her mother, and Clementine imitates Edwina -- badly. Disappointed by her stepsisters' arrogance, Cinderella throws a beggar (the prince in disguise, of course) out of the house with a series of swift battements.
Maria Kochetkova was an impeccable picture of a fairytale princess gleaming in gold, but the real star of the evening was Chung, who played Clementine. Whereas Cinderella hovers, lifted by the many hands of the four fates that accompany her throughout the ballet, or takes dancing lessons from the fairies who live by her mother's tree, or swoops over the shoulders of her prince, legs milling like a propeller in one of Wheeldon's typically gymnastic lifts, Clementine takes pratfalls, gets squashed into the ground by her sister as she does echappés, flirts with disarming obviousness, and actually gets the guy, too, in a rollicking pas de deux with Benjamin that has can-can kicks and ends back-to-back on the floor of the royal ballroom. Compared to the horrific would-be brides Guillaume faces (Bordello Kitri, Gecko Lady, and Babushka, as they are not listed in the program), glittering Cinderella is the appropriate choice, but winsome Clementine shows real character, real grit, and real, joyous, puppy-happy love in a subplot that overtakes the main event.
In our post-Harry Potter world, portraits should move, chairs should fly, trees should whomp, ceilings should show the constellations -- and they all do at the San Francisco Ballet. But also, love should be funny, and Wheeldon's choreography seems the most sincere when it is.
Seats for all 11 shows are sold out, but up to 200 standing room places are available each night on the ground floor and at the top of the house. With an unobstructed view of the stage, sore feet and twenty bucks give you a bargain view of this spectacle.
San Francisco Ballet presents Cinderella May 3-12 at 2pm and 8pm at the War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness, S.F. Tickets are $20 for standing room; buy at the Box Office on the day of the performance.