The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Opera House, Washington, DC
October 26, 2016
The Dutch National Ballet and San Francisco Ballet co-produced choreographer Christopher Wheeldon’s Cinderella. The Dutch took the lead, hosting the world premiere in December 2012, and the U.S. premiere followed in San Francisco in May 2013. This Cinderella is a keeper. With the help of puppeteer, designer, and director Basil Twist, a 2015 MacArthur genius grant recipient, this version of the popular fairy tale literally blossoms before your eyes. Twist creates a tree like none I’ve ever seen on stage, swelling with life, as well as a spectacular carriage sequence. The contributions of the the rest of the designers (scenic and costume designer Julian Crouch, lighting designer Natasha Katz, and projection designer Daniel Brodie) also add to the ballet’s beauty and magic.
Even with superior choreography and design elements, and the original music by Sergei Prokofiev, this Cinderella would not be a success without a cast of great dancers, and San Francisco Ballet’s dancers deserve heavy praise. Maria Kotchetkova makes a perfect Cinderella, and likewise Joseph Walsh makes a perfect prince. On opening night in DC, they breezed through Wheeldon’s choreography, making intricate lifts look natural and effortless. Kotchetkova’s arms are as communicative as they are graceful. Whether mournful or playful, hopeful or despondent, her arms alone reveal her emotion. The roles of the stepmother (Sarah Van Patten) and stepsisters (Sasha De Sola and Ellen Rose Hummel) were also well danced. Hummel utterly charmed as the bespectacled stepsister Clementine who finds a love of her own.
Some of the other roles merit explanation. In Wheeldon’s Cinderella, in place of the fairy godmother, there are Fates and Spirits, and yes, that splendid tree. The tree is a star on equal footing with Cinderella and her beau. Oh, and some tree gnomes. And there’s a best friend to the prince, Benjamin, who becomes Clementine’s sweetheart. At the beginning of the ballet, the audience is introduced to Cinderella’s mother (Lee Alex Meyer-Lorey). You don’t remember a coughing mother, a dropped handkerchief that tragically tells of her impending death? Well, this Cinderella is more than a little different. Without the assistance of the program notes, a viewer certainly might be confused!
Frankly, even with the program notes, some things aren’t so clear. The notes say that the Fates “cryptically warn [Cinderella] to keep an eye on the time” as she heads for the ball. I suppose it was pretty cryptic, because I missed it. But never mind. Even if the story doesn’t completely hold together, its makes enough sense to be enjoyed. It’s a fairy tale after all!
There are a few things about this lovely ballet that I would change. Yet only a few. First, why must the mean stepsister, Edwina, have bad breath? Why must this juvenile joke be repeated ad nauseum? I’d ditch that. Second, why do the foreign princesses who attend the ball (Jennifer Stahl as the Russian Princess, Kimberly Marie Olivier as the Spanish Princess, and WanTing Zhao as the Balinese Princess) have to incorporate unflattering ethnic caricatures? Breaks during celebrations when foreigners in funny costumes are ushered into the party to entertain are ubiquitous in the classical ballet world, but as long as one is taking liberties with the classics, why not toss this? We’re better than that today. For me, these crudely comic performances cheapened the Cinderella. Third, I have a small quibble with the many chairs that are lifted up ever so slowly, eventually forming an arch above the stage. Was the chair trick included as evidence that magic is afoot? That was already evident, and the flying chairs, I thought, distracted from Cinderella herself. Maybe it was just a nifty way to get the chairs out of the way? In any case, it was unnecessary. Fourth, the Fates were kind of freaky. I’m sure that’s on purpose, but they frightened me somewhat. Their creepy gold covered faces and black and blue costumes reminded me of the winged monkeys in the film The Wizard of Oz, and not in a good way. Finally, I wish there were some showstopping dancing in the lengthy prologue and first act. I wanted to see more of Kochetkova’s dancing talent, but the ballet starts off at a leisurely pace, with a lot of story setup. Cinderella is more of an actress than a dancer until the the second and third acts.
I’ll end the review with a list of a few things I really like about Wheeldon’s Cinderella, other than the tree, which I could go and on about, and the gorgeous dancing. First, the transition between Young Cinderella (Gracie James-Hickey) and Cinderella, the adult, is seamless and stunning. Young Cinderella walks in a line across the stage and hands a bouquet of flowers to her adult self, and the adult Cinderella simply keeps on walking. Second, the wall of portraits in Act I, Scene 4, provides delightful surprises that are an example of welcome creative humor, as opposed to the well-worn bad breath (and stinky feet) jokes and foreign princesses lampooning. Third, I like that Cinderella, in her duets with Prince Guillaume, seems to have more agency than a typical Cinderella. There’s a moment in which she places her hands on his shoulders and turns him, and another moment when she uses a hand to push down repeatedly on one of his shoulders as she is being lifted. This Cinderella isn’t powerless. Finally, I like the how the Fates, literally sometimes, have Cinderella’s back. It’s a comforting notion that even if you lose a parent, there are forces watching out for you.