In October I went to see the San Francisco Ballet perform Christopher Wheeldon’s Cinderella at Lincoln Center. The dancing was excellent, the art direction stunning and the vision sweeping. I left the theater full of the sense of magic that every true fairytale is meant to inspire, and a few specific visuals from the show even rank among the best I’ve seen on stage in my lifetime. While I was therefore satisfied with the experience overall, I was somewhat disappointed by a few key elements. The awe-inspiring sets and costumes take center stage in this ballet, while the plotline and choreography fall short of Wheeldon’s larger-than-life vision.
In an apparent effort to introduce avant garde elements into a classic fairytale, Wheeldon employs abstract, pseudo-spiritual concepts within the linear framework of the Cinderella narrative. Four protective spirits (“Fates,” according to the program synopsis) follow Cinderella throughout the ballet. The fairy godmother character is replaced by a collection of “spirits” that arise from the woods and subsume Cinderella in a colorful dance before sending her off to the ball in a shimmering rainbow carriage that comes to life before our eyes through an impressive feint of puppetry. In a scene intended to convey Cinderella’s slave status within the household, she stands on top of a long dining room table in dramatic darkness, ladling porridge for her family members while they sit around the table eating. Surreal elements like this inject a contemporary feel into the traditional ballet, but they ultimately add up to a mediocre level of innovation that I’m hopeful Wheeldon can ramp up in future works.
For one thing, these modern innovations are a bit too sparse and tonally unrelated. By far Wheeldon’s most successful innovation was the aforementioned carriage scene, created in concert with puppeteer Basil Twist. The base of the larger-than-life carriage is a collection of dancers who raise Cinderella above their heads and carry her away as she holds a huge, billowing swath of gold fabric up in the air to create the top of the carriage. Four of the “base” dancers spin green circular objects to create the effect of moving wheels. The image is truly breathtaking. And yet, it comes out of the blue at the end of Act I, following on a series of scenes that rush the storyline, employ too little actual dancing, and fail to present anything close to a comparable combination of imagery and choreography.
Another instance of innovation comes when a few wacky puppet-like characters – dancers wearing large animal heads reminiscent of Mother Goose – appear randomly during the fairy dance before the carriage scene. They then reappear even more randomly in Act III as part of the long line of otherwise normal girls who are trying on the glass slipper. Their second appearance is sort of funny, in part because of its randomness, but in the absence of other similarly fantastical characters, it isn’t exactly consistent with the rather traditional feel of the ballet overall. Wheeldon creates a dark vibe in a few instances to represent Cinderella’s mistreatment, a magical vibe during the fairy/carriage scene, and a silly playful vibe when the puppet-head characters appear; but none of these sensations is carried on throughout the ballet, leaving a hodgepodge that winds up feeling like almost any other balletic fairytale plus a few fun twists. Still, much of this inconsistency of vision could have been smoothed over or more easily ignored if the choreography were consistently better.
Wheeldon’s choreography, though frequently delightful, is generally repetitive and too often sparse. While the Fates create a wonderful effect on numerous occasions throughout the show when they pick Cinderella up and sweep her across stage as though she is floating instinctively through space, their own dancing is somewhat clunky, their costumes plain, and their choreography a sort of oversimplified representation of modern dance. The other characters have better choreography to work with, but the dancing is too sparse in most of Act I, with humor and gestural “storytelling” prioritized over actual dancing. In my opinion, humor and story are never very effectively conveyed in a ballet when dancing is sacrificed, but it is an unfortunately common choreographic trap that Wheeldon falls into when he forgets his primary purpose and spends time rushing through the story instead. He must also have forgotten his own abilities while creating Act I, as he demonstrates a remarkable aptitude for comedic choreography in Acts II and III when the stepsisters attempt to impress the prince, the step-mother gets drunk at the ball and deals with a nasty hangover the next morning, and, of course, the prince tries Cinderella’s shoe on every girl in the kingdom. It is because of Wheeldon’s evident talent that the lack of real choreography in some parts of the ballet and the amount of repetition in his sequences is disappointing. More robust choreography would better support the grandiose set design and imagery, though it would not cure the (albeit more forgivable) timidity with which Wheeldon introduces semi-avant garde elements.
I couldn’t help comparing Wheeldon’s efforts at innovation to two companies that push the limits of choreography and sensation in fantastically exciting ways: the Eifman Ballet of St. Petersburg and the Minneapolis-based Ballet of the Dolls. Wheeldon appears to have the talent to work toward similar boundary-pushing, or at least similar cohesiveness of vision, to which end he would do well to study the works of Boris Eifman and Myron Johnson. Their full-length original ballets always maintain a distinct sensational-emotional tenor throughout, with impressive choreography that balances the sets and costumes to create a consistent – though always new and interesting – overall sensory impression.
That said, I very much appreciated certain traditional elements of this ballet. The dancers of the San Francisco Ballet were technically and artistically excellent. They were precise, graceful and well able to convey character. Many of them were hilarious. (The step sisters were not always perfectly in sync when they danced together, but that may have been an intentional part of their comically inept characters.) Cinderella, played by Frances Chung, was absolutely beautiful – delicate, elegant, gentle and strong. Her quality of movement perfectly conveyed the classic fairytale heroine, in which kind-hearted generosity always trumps competitive nastiness at the end of the day. In a popular culture that seems to have largely written off the value of grace and honor, it was refreshing to see the spirit of the original balletic heroine, so much aligned with fairytale, beautifully brought to life in Cinderella. I am eager to see San Francisco Ballet again and equally interested to see where Wheeldon takes his grand visions and imaginative visual collaborations over the years.