June 2013

Scene4 Magazine - "Cinderella" at San Francisco Ballet | reviewed by Renate Stendhal | June 2013 |

Renate Stendhal

One look at women's feet on the sidewalk, or, if that's too far down, at any shoe store, and you know Cinderella is alive and well — as much today as she was once upon a time. If you care to google the girl, you'll learn that similar foot-fetish stories have been going around the globe for thousands of years, from Egypt and China via Vietnam to 18th century France (Perrault's version) and 19th century Germany (the Brothers Grimm). The cruel German fairytale is only topped in Korea, where the evil stepsisters are boiled and served to their charming mother: bon appetit to this happy ending.

Apart from being the heroine of a dozen operas and, from the 1950ies onward, a dozen movies (Disney and Rodger and Hammerstein leading the way), Cinderella has also been a ballet favorite. Look at those pink ballet slippers with their evocative shape and you know why.

Having been a dancer myself once upon a time, I can't resist the temptation of combining a look at SF Ballet's new Cinderella with a post-modern audiovisual narrative that will remind non-German readers of the bloody roots that remain well hidden in all the existing ballet versions of the story. This hidden subtext ought to give one pause when ballet attempts to serve up a "new" Cinderella today:


The new Cinderella's choreographer, Christopher Wheeldon, is one of the three big new names in ballet, next to (but far behind, in my view) Alexej Ratmansky and Wayne McGregor. Wheeldon's Cinderella is his first full-length choreography for SF Ballet, announced with great fanfare, but the word "new" here is not supposed to mean "avant-garde" or even close to any edge. Quite the contrary, it's the old hat with a few added feathers. Wheeldon's Cinderella is a potpourri of idées reçues, a few story elements picked from Rossini's opera and the Brothers Grimm, a few ideas from the Bolshoi and Royal Ballet versions, etc. A bit of magic here, a bit of comedy and vulgar meanness there, some spectacular visual moments and many scenes lacking such moments. The fairy queen and fairies are oddly replaced by 4 muscular male "handlers" à la Balinese puppetry or Noh theater, who move the heroine around at times. Unless you consulted the program to learn that they are "Fates," you could have wondered until the end what they were doing there, setting Cinderella up on top of the kitchen table, for example, to feed her family soup from a big spoon. The whole work seems cobbled together as if the e choreographer couldn't decide which shoe to wear.


What's new on the old hat?

The start promises good storytelling: a moody, grey scene with black birds flying overhead; a Victorian couple and a little girl, the woman fainting as she passes a handkerchief back to her husband, soiled with strikingly red blood. A moment later tragedy turns to burlesque. We are in the palace where young Prince Charming behaves very uncharmingly with his best buddy, making fun of a dancing mistress who is beyond her best age, but dressed like a cheap cocotte. Then back to moody. An older Cinderella deposits a flower bouquet at the gravestone, in the rain. She is joined by her father with three indistinct women who hand her another bouquet that she angrily throws down. Good-girl Cinderella in a fit?  I suppose it's meant to show that the girl has some oomph left in her, in spite of her grief. Maybe she does, but maybe we also have already stepped out of the tale, puzzling over questions of character and storytelling that are never again addressed. Instead of feeling for Cinderella, I felt distracted by the absurdity that her new in-laws are sprung on her in this way.

Back to the shenanigans of the ready-to-be-wedded Prince and his buddy, making fun of a wall of painted women ancestors. This brat of a Prince later enters his own engagement ball literally on his butt, still jostling in the same rowdy way with his pal. Is this a joke at the expense of certain royal sons of nowadays? A social commentary that drunken teenagers had better not get married?  Anybody's guess.


The ballroom has a dozen candelabras rising – and the fairytale-hungry audience goes oh and ah. But sorry, Cinderella's entry has nothing over that of a prom queen. You already had to use your opera glasses to detect a bit of disorder in the fringes of Cinderella's otherwise pretty nice dress in the home scenes where one would expect some rags in the rags-to-riches story. One would expect some grotesque exaggerations in the evil stepsisters – as in the Royal Ballet version by Frederick Ashton of 1948 (on DVD with Margot Fonteyn, 1957), where the sisters were danced to hilarious  effect by Ashton himself and his choreographer colleague Kenneth McMillan in drag. Talk about new. ("Ballet Trockadero," the outrageous all-male classical dance troupe, wasn't even born yet.)

But you didn't have to go that far. The classic Bolschoi version (also on DVD, from 1961) had no trouble squeezing every drop of grotesque stupidity and cruelty out of the ballerinas dancing the sisters and their mother. Wheeldon, by contrast, went for pretty with all of them — a mistake that robbed everyone of character. Instead of being laughably clumsy and gauche and mean like hell, the sisters (Sarah van Patten and Frances Chung) are haughty and have mildly funny tantrums. Wheeldon gives them nice steps to dance all along and gives us little reason to break our heart over Cinderella's lot. Such silly, snobbish girls in nice dresses, who make a few faux pas at a ball, could make one wonder why the Prince wouldn't sense a much better fit with one of them, given his own poor manners. His childhood buddy follows precisely this logic and gives one of the sisters a perfectly undeserved  happy ending. A double wedding waiting in the wings: that's new indeed!  Perhaps it's because she is the sister who has to wear glasses (Frances Chung): there may be a message here for today's American kids who are already stalking around in high heels for their Prince Charming.


So why Cinderella? That ball dress and outfit that should dazzle like a dream vision, stop everyone as if a unicorn had entered the hall? A bit of golden glimmer is all there is – and there is even less to note about her shoes. (As an aside: In the Ashton film version, Margot Fonteyn leaves behind a point shoe of such klutzy shapelessness that only a nincompoop of a Prince would chase after it. The Russian version, by contrast produces a dazzling glass slipper that could almost justify the whole obsessive tale.) In any case, Cinderella's prom dress doesn't make any man or woman in the ballroom stop breathing. Nobody rushes up dying to dance with her – except of course Prince Charming. What a downer, this Wheeldon ball, with boring group waltzes recycling over and over one easy, danceable bit of music in Prokofiev's dreary score for this ballet. (He wrote it right after his emotional, powerful score for Romeo and Juliet and was apparently wiped out, perhaps in a post-partem depression.) There is no crescendo in the repetition of waltzing music, and there is none in the infatuation of the couple. At least now Prince Charmless behaves, but romance remains a foreign word in this choreography. Like a symbol of the flatness of emotion, the fireworks shown outside the ballroom are such a fizzle that most audience members I talked to didn't even notice them.

Wheeldon commented on the pleasure of a made-to-order choreography for SF Ballet's dancers, giving them what they could do. This was good luck for Joan Boada as the first cast for the Prince. The Cuban principal dancer is at an age and heaviness where many dancers in the corps out-dance him. Soloist Garen Price Scribner as his buddy was a case in point. But given the small made-to-order demands, Boada seemed to enjoy himself with his little doll Maria Kochetkova, who also was unchallenged. I read about her enthusiasm for this role because of the Bolschoi version with Raisa Struchkova, which she had seen in Russia as a young ballet student. Indeed, the filmed Russian version is filled with feeling. Struchkova's loneliness and despair, her  innocent dancing with a broom as a stand-in for a lover, her wonder about the fairy miracles that transform her inside-out – all of it is moving and fits the dark tonality of Prokofiev's score. Her entrance to the ball, surrounded by fairies, is magical, and her dances with the Prince evolve slowly, shyly, into romance. You can literally see her grow up and grow passionate.

None of this in Wheeldon's ball scene. His two stars appear like two pleased puppies at their prom and they stay that way. Their pas de deux are so uneventful, so banal, that I wondered if Mr. Wheeldon's inspiration was crushed by the uninspiring score or crushed by his schedule, too busy to revisit some old love pas de deux of the classic repertoire, for example Nureyev's or Kenneth MacMillan's rousing depictions of young love – not to mention the heart-stopping language of a girl's dreams of passion in John Cranko's Eugene Onegin, revived only a few weeks ago by the same SF Ballet…


It's a pity that the choreographer didn't know where to take the few magical ideas he did come up with. The best one is the tree he took from the Grimm fairytale. With beautiful stage and video tricks, the tree foliage fills the whole back of the stage for moments and seems alive and breathing, coming closer, bending down to Cinderella as if to embrace her and whisper in her ear. Like a mother, the tree opens its trunk and – hello Dr. Freud! – lets the girl slip back into its womb for her transformation. Meanwhile some bizarre tree spirits, white chicken-like birds (instead of the pigeons of the classic tale) and gnome puppets have gathered a few leafy circles and sticks and lo and behold – a virtual carriage is assembled. In another second, Cinderella's handlers take on horse heads, she is lifted up high with a glorious train flying behind her as if in a gallop toward the audience and her grand destiny. The ballet should have ended right there.


What else did Wheeldon have to say? At least he produced a comical moment in the ball scene when the Prince is assaulted by three sexy princesses from hell (once again outstanding: Wan Ting Zhao). In the last act, in a nod to Pina Bausch, all the girls and women in the story line up on chairs, passing by as on an assembly line, trying on the precious shoe in all kinds of absurd ways. At the peak moment the stepmother (Katita Waldo) picks up a hammer to help her meanest daughter fit the shoe, which rightly brings the house down. But when Cinderella's big moment arrives, there is nothing to make this a magical moment. Covered up by the backside of the kneeling Prince, the high point of the tale is awkwardly brushed over, botched by the lack of some new idea, some spectacular scenic surprise. In the end, the audience is deprived by what comes down to creative laziness rather than innovation.

Cover Photo features Maria Kochetkova and Joan Boada

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©2013 Renate Stendhal
©2013 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Scene4 Magazine: Renate Stendhal
Renate Stendhal, Ph.D., is a writer and writing coach
based in San Francisco and Pt. Reyes and a Senior Writer for Scene4.
For more of her commentary and articles, check the Archives
Read her Blog


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June 2013

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