As one of the nation’s premiere ballet companies, San Francisco Ballet continually strives to adapt the ancient art form for modern audiences. English choreographer Christopher Wheeldon continued this tradition of crafting a classic ballet to be timeless with “Cinderella” at the War Memorial Opera House on April 4.
Wheeldon’s “Cinderella” trades out talking mice for mythical creatures and exchanges a fairy godmother for four Fates (Daniel Deivison-Oliviera, Nathaniel Remez, Alexander Reneff-Olson and Henry Sidford), who, rather than determining the young heroine’s destiny, empower her to take control over her future. Though the movement, costuming, staging and score are utterly whimsical, Wheeldon infused his choreography with distinctively human elements — from the arresting disgust upon smelling putrid breath to a bashful flinch as two lovers touch for the first time. Doing so created a viewing experience that any audience member could relate to, whether they were well-versed in ballet or not.
The blue skies projected onto the stage before the curtain rose immediately darkened as the ballet opened with the death of the young Cinderella’s (Aria Chung) mother. Cinderella’s deep sense of empathy and connection to nature’s elements were clear from this moment: the tears she wept over her mother’s grave eventually sprouted a large tree crafted by puppeteer Basil Twist. This is the same site where an older Cinderella (Misa Kuranaga) first met her new family: Hortensia (Jennifer Stahl), Edwina (Elizabeth Powell) and Clementine (Ellen Rose Hummel).
The production generally followed the fairytale’s traditional storyline: Cinderella grows up cleaning after her obnoxious, entitled stepmother and stepsisters, while Prince Guillaume (Isaac Hernandez) is brought up to find a titled princess to marry. Their paths cross when the Prince visits Cinderella’s house disguised as a beggar and experiences her kindness firsthand as she takes him in. Meanwhile, his friend Benjamin (Esteban Hernandez), dressed as the Prince, comes to deliver invitations to the ball, exposing the greedy and superficial character of Hortsenia, Edwina and Clementine. When the night of the ball rolls around, Cinderella is left behind by the rest of the family until the Fates — who have been lurking in the shadows — step forward to deliver the invitation Hortensia had cast into the fire to Cinderella.
Wheeldon’s artistic genius truly shone in the next scene as the spirits of Lightness, Fluidity, Generosity and Mystery emerged one by one from the tree to teach Cinderella the steps needed at the ball. Each burst forth in a dazzling array of color with a distinctive quality of movement, reflective of their respective virtues. The group swirled together for a show-stopping finale of Act I as the fates constructed a carriage from tree branches to take Cinderella to the ball.
Wheeldon consistently kept audiences engaged by interrupting ballet’s traditional sweeping grand battements and pirouettes with crisp, angular motions. This contrast was exemplified in Act II’s ball, where the corps transitioned from the beautifully synchronized waltz that opened the scene to a staccato rocking motion that faded into the background after a mysterious masked girl entered the room and began to glide across the stage with the Prince.
Kuranaga and Hernandez executed every move of their duet flawlessly, effortlessly finishing five or six turns with a long, slow extension. They were interrupted only when Hortensia — annoyed that the Prince’s attention was not on her daughter — embarrassed herself by drinking too much, and later, when the clock struck midnight. The energy onstage switched instantaneously and Wheeldon again gave dancers the chance to perform sharper, more modern choreography as Cinderella fled, leaving behind one glass slipper.
Act III concluded the ballet with the Prince’s search for the owner of the slipper, realizing that it belonged to Cinderella when she brought forth the matching one and the couple’s happy union. Wheeldon’s staging allowed fantasy and reality to coexist as members of the spiritual world attempted to try the slipper, and the royal wedding took place under the tree from which the spirits sprung forth. This blending of worlds was portrayed most strongly by the Fates who flitted between playing passive and active roles in Cinderella’s life. Altogether, every member of the cast and element of production worked in harmony to blur the lines between fantasy and reality, leaving the audience with the impression that any fairytale could very well come true.