Christopher Wheeldon was smart to choose the Grimm brothers' "Cinderella" for his first evening-length ballet, which the San Francisco Ballet opened Friday at the War Memorial Opera House in a sold-out run. This two-hour, 33-minute ballet in three acts took two years and the efforts of two companies on two continents to craft, being a joint project with the Dutch National Ballet, which shared resources and teamed up dancers along the way.
It depicts the familiar journey of loss, help and transformation, and it also captures the ghoulishness of misfortune and the comedy bad luck yields. How apt in an era when the news is dire, yet we cling to the hope ofa a happy ending.
But Wheeldon was even smarter with the team he he chose. He hired a world-class design crew to create a conception that is breathtaking in its fancifulness -- -- it is technically and scenically ingenious, from the opening image of a fantastic blue sky studded with fat white clouds and darting birds to the magic ascension of chairs at the end to form an archway for Cinderella and the Prince.
The designers make brilliant use of Japanese puppet-theater methods, of cinematic magic, of giant puppet heads and of a tree that grows lush and broad and undergoes seasonal changes. It's a ballet that seeks out the complex delicacy of imagination and finds new ways of making it materialize on stage throughout the night.
The dancing wasn't bad either, and given the physical magnitude of the stage design, this was no small accomplishment. The dancing magic sprouted faster and more deliciously from one source than almost any other source: the comedy. The biggest news of the night was that Wheeldon, at heart, may be a closet vaudevillian whose antics equal Frederick Ashton's and Jerome Robbins' at their funniest. In some of the finest comedic dancing in memory, Katita Waldo as the small-minded stepmom witch, Sarah Van Patten as the bullying and vainglorious older stepsister, and Frances Chung as the bespectacled young ninny formed a triumvirate that danced with vicious silliness. Such inventive dance, surgically delivered, is a rare delight.
Dancing to Sergei Prokofiev's lush and often melancholic 1945 score, Maria Kochetkova was a pliant, dreamy Cinderella, and Joan Boada an earnestly boyish Prince. Their first dance encounter, when he is impersonating a street urchin she has sheltered in the house, is tentative and heartfelt, shy in a memorable way, and is begun with her feet on top of his.
But the later love pas de deux were formulaic and grew wearisome as Wheeldon clung to motifs that signaled "this is love" -- Boada endlessly lifting, Kochetkova spinning and leaping. Ballet choreographers need to look at what choreographers outside the opera houses are doing.
There were other missteps. Wheeldon's spoof on traditional "ethnic" cameos could have been fantastical but was hackneyed kitsch instead, and his large group dances for spirits of the seasons were busy work performed in fright wigs.
But the elegantly impish Taras Domitro as the Prince's best friend and son of the King's valet, danced joyously and inventively. Damian Smith performed Cinderella's father with apt fecklessness, and Val Caniparoli as Ben's father had a comic-serious way with his jousting stick.
Meanwhile, the four fates (gold-masked men in blue and black, inspired by Japanese bunraku puppeteers who operate in plain view) would have been more powerful as four women -- four archetypal guardians of life and death sent by Cinderella's dead mother, four aspects of the future young woman as she confronts her fate. Even so, they added a silent, lurking presence to the whole that brought depth to a night big on magic.
Ann Murphy is assistant professor and head of the Mills College dance department. Contact her at email@example.com.
By Christopher Wheeldon, presented by San Francisco Ballet
When: Through May 12
Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco
Tickets: Sold out