There are no pumpkins to be found in this Cinderella. The San Francisco Ballet’s version, created by Choreographer Christopher Wheeldon and librettist Craig Lucas, departs from the Perrault story most of us are more familiar with, borrowing instead from the Brothers Grimm and crafting something entirely their own. In this magnificent production at the Kennedy Center, there is no fairy godmother or Cinderella’s cat. Instead, we experience the prince and Cinderella as real people, seeing them first as children and then as young adults, making mistakes as you or I would.
The story begins with a glimpse across the mists of time, as we watch young Cinderella’s (tonight played by Gracie James-Hickey) last moments with her mother through the cloud curtain—with birds flying across the screen!—created by Projection Designer Daniel Brodie. In the palace, the young Prince Guillaume (Nicholas Yurkevich) and his friend Benjamin (Marcello Marca) rebel against the prince’s responsibilities, which are dictated by his parents (Ricardo Bustamante and Anita Paciotti). The boys opt instead to chase around their dance teacher (Katita Waldo), stopping only when interrupted by Benjamin’s father (James Sofranko).
While Cinderella may not have a fairy godmother in Wheeldon’s take on this classic tale, what we get is far better: Set Designer Julian Crouch enlists award-winning puppeteer Basil Twist to bring to life the magical tree of the Grimms’ fairy tale, nurtured by Cinderella’s tears over her mother’s grave. The tree gains a life of its own, growing up with Cinderella and the four Fates (Daniel Deivison-Olveira, Francisco Mugamba, Anthony Vincent, and Wei Wang) that guide her throughout her life. The tree, whose branches themselves move in the wind with the grace of a dancer, is the site of some of the best moments of the play: Cinderella’s dance with the four seasons, who also endow her with gifts of lightness, generosity, mystery and fluidity. And it is where she shares a dance with her prince in a piece that allows the two leads, Maria Kochetkova and Joseph Walsh, to entrance us with a lightness and fluidity akin to flying across the stage.
In this version, we depart from the evil stepfamily, who have often been portrayed in drag (once even by Prokofiev himself!). Instead, we see Cinderella’s father (Ruben Martin Cintas) attempt to find love again with Hortensia (Sarah Van Patten), which Cinderella refuses to accept. The elder, prettier stepsister Edwina (Sasha De Sola) bullies her younger, glasses-clad sister Clementine (Ellen Rose Hummel) into ostracizing Cinderella and casting out the young beggar—actually the prince in disguise—who comes to call. The prince’s childhood friend Benjamin (Taras Domitro) appears as the “prince” in a case of mistaken identity that leads to a series of comical mishaps.
Wheeldon and Lucas seem intent on creating a world filled both with magic and human truth. The glittering ballroom of the night before is followed by one of the characters having a hangover, which I had no idea one could so accurately portray through dance. Wheeldon’s choreography mixes purely aesthetic dances with expressive, character-driven movement, from the two stepsisters clumsily trying to out-dance each other to the awkwardly charming first dance between Cinderella and the prince. His work is perfectly suited to Prokofiev’s playful, variegated score, conducted in this performance by Martin West.
The San Francisco Ballet’s production is an example of innovative choreography coupled with a group of designers at the top of their game, bringing alive a dizzying number of unique locations and breathtaking visual effects. Julian Crouch’s ever-moving set is complemented by his striking costume designs, from Cinderella’s glittering gown to the national costumes of the visiting foreign princesses (Jennifer Stahl, Kimberly Marie Olivier and WanTing Zhao), to the quirky woodland birds, pigs and chestnuts that live around Cinderella’s tree.
From its stunning visual effects to the stories woven by Wheeldon and his performers, the San Francisco Ballet’s production of Cinderella will leave audiences filled with wonder, a welcome respite from the cares of everyday life.
Cinderella will be performed with different dancers in certain roles each night. This cast will next perform on Saturday, October 29, 2016.
Cinderella plays through Sunday, October 30, 2016 at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts – 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, D.C. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 467-460, or purchase them online.