Cream rises to the top

  • by Paul Parish
  • Tuesday May 7, 2013
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San Francisco Ballet's Cinderella (choreography: Christopher Wheeldon) is already sold out. Before it opened, rumor has it, it was sold out. Don't let that stop you. You must go. Somebody's mother-in-law always gets sick, and you can get her ticket on the stairs outside.

The show is fabulous �" there are moments when your hair stands on end and you feel like your head is going to explode. The deep coherence of the show is tremendous, but it's tricked out in delicacy and fancy. It's as good as Toy Story, with overwhelmingly wonderful music by Serge Prokofiev, one of his most visionary and mysterious scores. Every turn of the story has been freshly imagined, fitted to the music in an original way. Opening night was a sensational hit; it will be fascinating to see how well the spectacle stands up to repeated viewings.

The most thrilling thing was completely unexpected �" instead of a Fairy Godmother, our show has (as in Grimm's version of the tale) a magic tree, which sprouts in the first scene from her mother's grave, watered by our heroine's tears. All the magic forces that beautify Cinderella (Maria Kochetkova) and send her to the ball emerge from this tree. It is a gigantic marionette, designed by the brilliant puppeteer Basil Twist, that fills the entire stage, floor to ceiling, side to side, with turbulent branches, and leaves that change color and dance, as an army of nature spirits convenes and arms Cinderella with magic powers �" grace, feral beauty, charisma �" and sends her to the ball. Like Harry Potter's Whomping Willow, this tree is awesome, colossal, gnarly. Its branches writhe about, it swallows up our heroine (in the nicest possible way), then sends her out swathed in gold, radiance and glamor, and generates the astounding Chariot (another Twist invention) that sweeps her off to the ball. I've seen many versions of Cinderella , and never have I seen a chariot that makes the audience more excited than this one.

Cinderella had been so hyped, I'm a little in doubt that we didn't suffer a collective hallucination on opening night. There were all the trappings of a gala performance �" a high-society dinner and ball framed the show itself, the audience was threaded out in couturier glamor. But I have seen events like that fall flat. Not so with this one. It swept us all away. Millions were spent on this production, and rarely has so much money been thrown at a new ballet to better purpose. These effects are worth every penny.

Everyone knows what happens in Cinderella, which is why it offers such challenges to make it seem new all over again. The oldest recorded version of the story is from 2,000 years ago, set in Egypt; there are variants in literature from all epochs all over the world.

The myth underlies many a Cinderella story, such as (my favorite) John Waters' Hairspray: total nobody/genius dancer Tracy Turnblatt goes on Baltimore's teen-royalty TV show and not only becomes the toast of the town, but also personally ends white supremacy. It's a populist myth that's been working its spell "since King Cophetua loved the beggar-maid." The cream will rise to the top, and true love will recognize the soulmate when the encounter finally happens.

San Francisco Ballet in Christopher Wheeldon's Cinderella. Photo: Erik Tomasson

In this version of the story, we see the prince (Joan Boada) as a child �" he's a great guy with a best friend (Taras Domitro) who's the son of his father's valet. The two of them like to switch roles and go on adventures. They meet the Cinderella family long before the ball, and the prince, in disguise as the commoner, hits it off with poor Cinderella early on. She thinks he's hilarious, he thinks she's adorable, and they dance together until he pulls her into a cuddle position �" what they call "shadow position" at the Sundance Saloon �" that's too intimate and makes her push him away, though he knows she likes it. This image comes back in the very last dance, after they're married; she stands there happily, leaning back into him, as the curtain slowly falls and the audience leaps to its feet to applaud.

Wheeldon's choreography is not great, but it's good enough, and at the very big moments, like this one, it's simple, mythic, and superb. Cinderella's solo at the ball is a revelation. His use of four male dancers, dressed in dark blue, as "Fates" who are at her side throughout her life, strikes me as inspired. "Cinders," as they call her in England where Wheeldon comes from, is in effect a charwoman, covered in ashes, reduced by her stepmother to the status of a slave. In Wheeldon's vision, her only friends are (I'm quoting Wordsworth's "To Toussaint l'Ouverture") "Powers that will work for thee, air, earth, and skies,/There's not a breathing of the common wind/That will forget thee, thou hast great allies,/Thy friends are exultations, agonies,/And love, and man's unconquerable mind." It's very subtly done, and just seems natural.

The dancing was fabulous; there is not room to praise the ballerinas Katita Waldo, Sarah van Patten, and Frances Chung, who played step-mother and -sisters. Hansuke Yamamoto, Sasha da Sola, and Clara Blanco, and Jaime Garcia-Castillo brought great mystique and power to their dances as nature spirits who readied Cinderella for the ball. The courtiers, the foreign princesses, the king and queen, valet and footman created a royal realm desperately in need of new blood, with great style and verve. The story gave us a wonderful look at a new prince who seems one of us, and has certainly chosen one of us to be his queen.