Few stories are more familiar than the tale of Cinderella, a girl whose kind heart guides her from the ashes of her wicked stepmother’s hearth and to a royal palace as a match of a handsome prince, with a little help from the fairy godmother. Retelling a story that popular poses challenges to an artist: how do you make something so familiar surprising? This is the task that Helgi Tomasson, artistic director of the San Francisco Ballet, tackled with—familiar—brilliance. In his production of Christopher Wheeldon’s Cinderella, the opening ballet of the 2020 season, Tomasson retains the core elements that make Cinderella’s story so appealing—an orphaned girl who doesn’t lose heart, a slave-to-princess metamorphosis, virtue’s triumph over evil—while adding subtle new plot twists that imbue the old story with contemporary relevance.
The ballet, a 2012 co-production of SF Ballet and Dutch National Ballet, starts on a heart-wrenching note: in a whirlwind prologue, usually omitted in ballet and Hollywood versions alike, Cinderella’s happy childhood is shattered by her mother’s swift sickness and death that leaves the girl weeping by the gravestone. From her tears springs a tree that would assume, in the upcoming scenes, the role of the fairy godmother, familiar from the Cinderella’s fairy tale as introduced by the French writer Charles Perrault in 1697. Wheeldon’s version is closer to the darker story told by Brothers Grimm, centered around nature and the spirit of the mother. By showing Cinderella’s early trial, Wheeldon adds depth to the heroine and makes the ballet concordant both to the current troubled Zeitgeist and the genius score of Sergey Prokofiev, a composer with a particular gift of interlacing light and darkness.
The following set takes the audience not to Cinderella’s orphaned house, as the standard story goes, but to the royal palace of her future mate, the young Prince Guillaume, so as to impart personality qualities beyond those of a royal mug falling in love with a beautiful stranger. The young prince is mischievous, friends with his valet’s son and rebellious enough to his parents. Rather than falling in love at the ball, where Cinderella, danced graciously by Francis Chung, appears in all her glory, the prince (superb Angelo Greco) first meets her in her lowly station at her house, disguised as an urchin and a servant to the valet’s son. When it eventually turns out that the belle of the ball is the same kind-hearted girl who treated a poor man as a prince, the prince’s choice to offer her his hand and his kingdom to Cinderella becomes more poignant and only partially driven by her spectacular looks.
Other surprises include passing the functions of Cinderella’s benefactor from the fairy god mother to four mysterious male figures that act as Fates, guiding Cinderella on her path, and a very vibrant tree that not only serves as her refuge, but also supplies her with a ball gown, and, in a stunning piece of stage artistry, a floating carriage ready to take her to the man of her dreams. Creative and whimsical special effects allow the tree to undergo a series of metamorphoses that are no less spectacular than the one performed by Cinderella. The foliage and movements are enhanced by projections; in the final scene, the tree’s wide branches spring glowing candelabras, as though in a salute to the union between the prince and the Cinderella. Basil Twist, an award-winning puppeteer behind the magical tree, drew some of his inspiration from his childhood, when he would go see San Francisco’s “Nutcracker” on that very stage and marvel at the Christmas tree growing before his eyes. “That tree was one of the reasons I work in the theatre,” he confesses. Now he has created his own masterpiece.
Cinderella’s stepsisters also undergo some revisionism, particularly the younger, Clementine, shown as a reluctant accomplice in her mother’s quest to diminish Cinderella. She’s rewarded by gaining the favor of the prince’s valet Benjamin (Hansuke Yamamoto) and a subsequent rescue from her mother’s loveless home. The stepsisters’ duets are particularly delightful: it presents a certain challenge for top-notch dancers like Madison Keesler (Edwina) and Isabella Devivo (Clementine) to dance awkwardly, like the plot requires of them. They cope with the task brilliantly and not only make the audience laugh but are obviously having fun themselves. In another plot twist, the habitual wickedness of their stepmother is augmented by a binge drinking fit at the ball. It elicited understanding laughs from the audience, if at the expense of pulling the scene a bit too far into the comical. Still, the overall family disfunction is portrayed well and resonant with modern sensibilities.
But what about the main character, Cinderella? She too, undergoes a transformation in Wheeldon’s version. Her loyalty to her gone mother, whose grave is the ballet’s most important place—magic happens there—wins her extra credit with the viewers, as does her early rebellion against the soon-to-be stepmother. She’s in charge of her destiny and knows that she is not going to be a servant forever. Her reliance on magic is minimal: sure the alliance of the tree and the fates outfit her for the ball and provide transportation, delivering required audience delights, but it is possible to imagine this Cinderella borrowing a friend’s dress and getting an Uber to the ball, while the real magic that wins the prince’s heart is within herself. Kissing her unrepentant stepmother before departing for her new, better life, is a nice touch that reminds us why Cinderella is such an enduring character: forgiveness is something that we often seek but struggle to give.
Twenty-one long centuries into our collective existence, few stories are new. What is new is how we tell them.