Saturday, May 4, 2013

Christopher Wheeldon's Brilliant Cinderella at San Francisco Ballet

Yesterday, San Francisco Ballet (SFBallet) presented the US Premiere of Christopher Wheeldon's new ballet, Cinderella, to the music by Sergei Prokofiev.

Prokofiev's score was enchanting and often ravishing; however, that does not guarantee a success - many years ago, I sat through a very dull Romeo and Juliet, set to his brilliant score, in the same War Memorial Opera House, presented by the usually glorious SFBallet.  Based on that experience, I appreciate a good choreography and staging much more.  Ballet is more than flawless steps and beautiful music, it also needs to be a good theater and tell a coherent story.  Therefore, we must be grateful to Mr. Wheeldon for creating this magical new ballet, which was co-commissioned by SFBallet and Dutch National Ballet, who presented the world premiere in Amsterdam last December. According to the program, Wheeldon created this ballet working with dancers from both companies simultaneously, having one company's dancers visiting other company to rehearse and incorporating their thoughts into the creative process.

Christopher Wheeldon is an English international choreographer of contemporary ballet. In 1991, Wheeldon joined the Royal Ballet, London; and in that same year, he won the Gold Medal at the Prix de Lausanne competition. In 1993, at the age of 19, Wheeldon moved to New York City to join the New York City Ballet. Wheeldon began choreographing for the New York City Ballet in 1997, while continuing his career as a dancer. He retired as a dancer in 2000 in order to focus on his choreography. In recent years, he had emerged as one of the very best ballet choreographer of our time. 

This new Cinderella was not as grand as those old Russian Imperial story ballets by Marius Petipa, or as glistering as abstract ballets by George Balanchine.  Its style though grand at time, was predominantly intimate, warm, consoling, and also fun and hilarious.  It rooted deeply in classical ballet tradition, but was also thoroughly modern, in its new twist of the story and characters, and the steps and gestures of modern dance incorporated organically into the classical ones by Wheeldon, and with the modern stage crafts.  However, as inventive and wonderful it was, there was a bit of wanting in the transcendent dancing.  Perhaps the production was more successful in terms of theater than pure dance.  Sadly, this is more or less the norm nowadays.  Maybe next Alexei Ratmansky's all Shostakovich ballets in next season will brought us back the the glory similar to The Jewels by Balanchine. 

This production was heightened by the amazingly animated living breathing tree, which grew up from the grave of Cinderella's mother, by the famous San Francisco born, New York based puppeteer, Basil Twist, who had created some unforgettable effects for plays, operas and ballets.  It was a character in its own right, grand, magical and flashy, but readily to yield to the dancing characters in due time.  The whole show was an enveloping smile-inducing enchantment.

Below is a video trailer posted on SFBallet's website:

Since yesterday was the US premiere, there was much excitement.  Before the show, apparently there was a party and you can see some one dressed up to the ninth arriving at the opera house, waited by uniformed crew by the entrance:

US Premiere of Cinderella by Christopher Wheeldon, San Francisco Ballet, 3 May 2013 _ DSCN6669

Besides the ball, there was the usual "Meeting the Artist" event before the show, and the principal dancer Rubén Martín Cintas was interviewed.  Cintas would dance the role of Cinderella's father in several performances during this run.

US Premiere of Cinderella by Christopher Wheeldon, San Francisco Ballet, 3 May 2013, Meet the Artist Rubén Martín Cintas before the performance _ DSCN6682
Meet the Artist Rubén Martín Cintas before the performance  

US Premiere of Cinderella by Christopher Wheeldon, San Francisco Ballet, 3 May 2013 - _ DSCN6689
Theater curtain before the performance

All the principals dance superbly and despite the drawback that he was not as personally endearing as Taras Domitro, who as the Prince's friend Benjamin was the personification of innocent charm and noble grace, Joan Boada won us over with his precise steps and his understated ardor, and his final pas de deux with Cinderella was sublime. Maria Kochetkova's Cinderella was strong, not easily cowed, and always understanding, forgiving.  Her Cinderella was also full of life and was a fun person to be with despite much adversaries in her young life.  Kochetkova's dancing was joyous, though not overtly extravagant and that suited Boada's Prince perfectly.  The main pairs' collective strength was their deep understanding of each other and life, and the understatement of their personality and performance.

Outright brilliance, though necessarily silly time to time, belonged to the stepmother and the two stepsisters.  I was very grateful that they were danced by brilliant and beautiful ballerinas, whose ugliness lay mostly in their actions, rather than often caricatured looks in many other productions, in which they were also often danced by men in drags.  Here, they danced their outrageous and intricate silly and fun steps, particularly those of the daughters, brilliantly by Katita Waldo, Sarah Van Patten and Frances Chung.  Chung's character of the younger stepsister Clementine was bullied into being a mean sister to Cinderella and once she found her young love in the adoring and adorable Domitro's Benjamin, she emerged a very sympathetic figure and won our blessing for her good fortune.  As for the tougher sister Edwina, we can see that she would step into her mother's shoes more easily than those of Cinderella's.

The audience was absolutely enchanted by the performance and had to fight against the urge to applaud ever so often, because the musical and choreographic structures demanded a continuous flow.  At the end of each of the three acts, audience was truly gratified for the opportunity to cheer prolongedly.

US Premiere of Cinderella by Christopher Wheeldon, San Francisco Ballet, 3 May 2013 - Lit City Hall _ DSCN6705
City Hall, seen from the balcony of the opera house during the intermission

US Premiere of Cinderella by Christopher Wheeldon, San Francisco Ballet, 3 May 2013 - Intermission _ DSCN6712
Excited crowd during Intermission

Here are some images of last night's curtain calls:

US Premiere of Cinderella by Christopher Wheeldon, San Francisco Ballet, 3 May 2013 - Curtain Calls _ DSCN6717
Curtain call of the principal dancers - Maria Kochetkova, Joan Boada, Frances Chung, Taras Domitro and Sarah Van Patten

US Premiere of Cinderella by Christopher Wheeldon, San Francisco Ballet, 3 May 2013 - Curtain Calls _ DSCN6723
Curtain call of the choreographer Wheeldon and production team

SFBallet announced that "All Performances SOLD OUT! Limited standing room tickets are available. There will be no rush tickets sold for this production."

Catch it if you can.  Or do yourself a favor and try to see it next season, which will include another run of this enchanting work.

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