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Wheeldon’s “Cinderella” Meanders and Misses the Mark

 As I mentioned last week in my largely favorable review of one of the San Francisco Ballet’s mixed bills at the Koch Theatre in NYC, the company under the direction of Helgi Tómmasen is first rate. Yet the excellent dancing in Christopher Wheeldon’s “Cinderella”, which I saw on Friday evening, couldn’t save the production from being overwrought and hard to follow. The opening scenes, with the child Cinderella suffering the untimely death of her mother and the teenage Cinderella meeting her overbearing stepmother and the stepsisters, were promising indeed. So was the scene in which Prince Guillaume as a boy makes mischief with his friend Benjamin, a foreshadowing of the trickery they will engage in as young men trying to keep the prince from the fate of an arranged marriage. Unfortunately, the story line wandered from that auspicious beginning although the plot plant (no pun intended) of the tree at the mother’s grave seemed to be an attempt to hold the narrative together.

Long passages of dancing without any apparent rationale, including one love pas de deux too many, created a kind of narrative torpor. Even the program notes strained to explain the scenario. Not only that, but the ballet veered back and forth unconvincingly from comedy to seriousness. One minute the stepsisters were dancing with admirable technique and not a hint of malice or clumsiness, yet the next phrase had them suddenly turn clownish. Then in the ballroom scene, the stepmother got drunk. This turn of events, which was meant to be funny, was a joke that bombed. But then I felt the same way about the tipsy stepmother in James Kudelka’s “Cinderella” for the National Ballet of Canada and the American Ballet Theatre. Humor can easily slip into slapstick and that’s exactly what happened in both instances, to the detriment of the art form.

Another hapless scene in Wheeldon’s version was the line of chairs with women from around the world trying on the shoe one by one. Unaccountably, after most the chairs were flown to hang precariously above the stage, several chairs and some of the women reappeared right in Cinderella’s kitchen where the Prince and Benjamin proceeded to continue their quest. Then the ballet lapsed back into slapstick as the stepmother tried to make the shoe fit the more cantankerous of the stepsisters. I yearned for Ashton’s stepsisters who performed in travesty and never tried to be anything but genuinely comedic. 

All of that notwithstanding, I do have some kind words to offer beyond my general praise of the company’s prowess. Vanessa Zahorian in the role of Cinderella and Davit Karapetyan playing her prince were mesmerizingly believable lovers. But then, as I learned because I happened to be sitting a few rows behind Vanessa’s justifiably proud mother, the two are married in real life. Vanessa is one of the many stellar alums of Marcia Dale Weary’s Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet. I mentioned in my earlier review of the San Francisco Ballet that only two out of the 18 principal dancers hail from the United States. The other is Sarah Van Patten from Boston. Vanessa’s mom did tell me that her daughter studied in Russia for a year as well as at the Kirov Academy in Washington D.C. but I think we can still claim her as one of our own.

The stagecraft in the production also warrants plenty of praise. The audience understandably went wild for the magical transformation at the end of Act One when Cinderella, with a billowing gossamer fabric behind her, was suddenly on her way to the ball in a coach drawn by a team of “horses”. Seconds earlier, they were the shadowy figures of the otherworldly Fates who were always watching over her. The Fates are one of Wheeldon’s inventions that I do in fact like. They are far and away superior to the ludicrous vegetable garden fairies and pumpkin-headed men in Kudelka’s unfortunate rendition of the ballet.

Another lovely touch of Wheeldon’s is the subplot about the burgeoning love between Clementine, the sweet stepsister, and Benjamin. As the ballet draws to a close, we have two happy endings with Clementine and Benjamin together at last and a royal wedding for Cinderella and Prince Guillaume. Apologies to Shakespeare, however, because all is not always well that ends well. This “Cinderella” is far from Wheeldon’s finest hour. When I think back to his delightful “Carnival of the Animals” that premiered in 2003, I begin to wonder if the choreographer has not been wearied by the difficult life lessons he has had to learn since 2008 when he left the comfort of his salaried post as resident choreographer of the New York City Ballet. Perhaps he needs to draw a deep breath and step back from making ballets for a while until he can begin again refreshed and inspired.


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