Monday, April 03, 2023

San Francisco Ballet - "Cinderella"

San Francisco Ballet
War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco

San Francisco Ballet in Wheeldon's Cinderella
Photo Lindsay Thomas

April 1st, 2023 (matinee)

When a ballet has been part of a company’s repertoire for quite some time, there is an upside of familiarity. Audiences know the story, the visuals, the choreography. The downside is that the work can start to feel stale after a while. But one full-length narrative that will never fall victim to time is Christopher Wheeldon’s Cinderella. A co-production of SFB and Dutch National Ballet, this Cinderella has vibrancy to spare. Stunning landscapes, humor, a wild cast of characters, innovative design and the choreographic backbone that this familiar fairy tale needs. Cinderella saw its US premiere at SFB on May 3, 2013, and even though a decade has passed, the work’s ingenuity has rendered it ageless.

Like many story ballets, Act I has much narrative exposition. We meet the main characters; come to understand their respective situations and learn what motivates them. In Wheeldon’s version, that begins with a prelude of sorts, where the viewer encounters the leads as children. We see Cinderella lose her mother, and the onset of her protection by the four Fates (the Fairy Godmother character reimagined). We meet her new family and witness how their jealousy dominates and decimates Cinderella’s life. We are transported to the palace where Prince Guillaume and his friend Benjamin are, as children, already battling notions and assumptions of duty and responsibility. And as the Act moves on, and the leads grow up, there’s mistaken identity. Invitations to a ball. A forest bubbling with color, energy and animation. 

There were several special moments throughout this initial Act, especially from SFB soloist Isabella DeVivo, who debuted in the titular role on Saturday afternoon. Cinderella’s first solo at her mother’s grave is one of my favorite dance moments in the ballet, and DeVivo displayed such command and range. It feels like an intimate conversation between Cinderella and her mother – an opportunity to share about her life, her dreams, her fears. As such, the choreography is thematically and tonally nuanced. There’s joy, wistfulness, longing and grief and DeVivo delivered on all fronts. 

Elizabeth Mateer was fantastic as the severe, unforgiving (and in Act II, the drunk) stepmother, perhaps the best portrayal of that character since the ballet’s premiere. And Kamryn Baldwin and Jasmine Jimison were delightfully cringeworthy as Cinderella’s stepsisters. In the forest, before transforming for the ball, Cinderella happens upon a mélange of characters, led by the seasonal variations. Spring sparkles with buoyancy and spirit, while Summer’s circular, swinging choreography floats with vastness. Fiery and dramatic, Autumn’s footwork is all spice, and Winter closes things out with elegant coolness. Cinderella’s transport to the ball is a phenomenal visual effect, concluding an Act where much happens, and maybe a few too many characters appear in the final scene.

Next, we arrive at the palace’s grand ballroom for more action, fun and romance. The churlish stepsisters desperately try to one up each other to impress the Prince (Joseph Walsh), the stepmother has her gloriously tipsy solo and sparks fly between Jimison’s Clementine and Hansuke Yamamoto’s Benjamin. But what makes Act II special are the duets and solos by DeVivo and Walsh. Innocence, grace and curiosity informed all their partnering. Relevés were confident and secure. Each phrase had an undeniable ‘swept off your feet’ tone – DeVivo skimming the stage with every lift, turn and gentle hop. Act II does drag a bit from time to time and the corps’ segments needed some attention. Their opening waltz sequence is another favorite dance moment of mine in this ballet, but on Saturday afternoon, coordination and timing was a bit elusive for the group. 

The final Act of Wheeldon’s Cinderella is all about finding the foot that fits the golden slipper left behind at the ball. After many humorous attempts, it is discovered that Cinderella is the owner of that shoe, and the love story is fully realized. Cinderella and the Prince’s final pas de deux celebrates that love, certainly. Though it also reveals another layer or level to their journey – freedom and choice. In the end, their triumph is that they have the freedom to choose each other; to live the life they want and to be happy on their own terms. 

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