If a sold out week-long run of Christopher Wheeldon’s “Cinderella” is anything to go by, San Francisco Ballet should note that story ballets and fairy tales sell.
“Cinderella,” which opened at the War Memorial Opera House on May 3 and closes May 12 – is a lavish, glittering, high-tech production with scenery and costumes by Julian Crouch. It made its world debut December in Amsterdam with the Dutch National Ballet; San Francisco Ballet’s run is the U.S. premiere.
The three-act ballet is a pretty spectacle, but may boast more style than substance.
Collaborating with librettist Craig Lucas, Wheeldon goes to town on the storytelling. Like many choreographers before him, Wheeldon packs “Cinderella” with slapstick humor and cartoonish posturing that almost echoes stop-motion animation – especially when step-sisters Edwina (a snooty and angular Vanessa Zahorian on Wednesday night) and Clementina (the charming and quirky Dores Andre) are onstage.
The over-the-top vaudevillian tone largely follows a precedent set by Sir Frederick Ashton’s “Cinderella” in 1948, which starred a riotous Ashton and Robert Helpmann in drag as the step-sisters.
Wheeldon uses the Brothers Grimm version of the fairy tale as his primary inspiration, and packs seven scenes into the first act.
In Grimm, nature is the fairy godmother, with birds (Wheeldon uses “spirits”) showering her in a gold ball gown beneath the tree that sprouts from her mother’s grave, watered by Cinderella’s tears.
Wheeldon adds The Fates, four male dancers who shadow, guide and advise Cinderella. With faces painted in gold-leaf, The Fates wear distractingly wide-legged black and blue costumes, obfuscating what could be quite dynamic choreography.
Puppeteer Basil Twist made the lush, trembling, chameleon-colored tree that is the production’s focal point. Spirits emerge from beneath the verdant canopy and prepare Cinderella for the ball, starting with the green-wigged, razor sharp Clara Blanco as “Spring/Lightness.”
She is followed by the other three seasons, echoing the seasonal fairies often featured in other “Cinderella” productions.
Throughout, the choreography is more dynamic for the men than the women, especially when Prince Guillaume (Luke Ingham) and his friend Benjamin (Garen Scribner) were on stage together Wednesday night.
Scribner – in his last ever performance with San Francisco Ballet before he joins Nederlands Dans Theatre – and Ingham danced their youthful, boyish and bounding steps with wit and verve.
As Cinderella, even Yuan Yuan Tan looks awkward periodically, especially in the first-act solo, with its underwhelming steps.
In the final act, the prince and princess pas de deux had its moments, with some gentle lifts and soft embraces, but lacked the fluid, innovative partnering Wheeldon has displayed before.
The ensemble choreography fared better, especially in the ballroom scene when the steps amplified the full breadth and flounce of the courtiers’ ball gowns, a stunning sight beneath over 50 crystal-laden chandeliers.
Post-performance audience chatter often focuses on mesmerizing lifts, spins, jumps and dazzling partnering. After “Cinderella” the crowd largely focused on the sets and costumes. And who could blame them? Cinderella’s gown drips with gold feathers, chairs hang from the rafters and family portraits are animated.
Was Wheeldon’s dancing dwarfed by distractions? Only time will tell. But if “Cinderella” does nothing else, it proves to San Francisco Ballet that audiences love old stories and pageantry. If only this meant San Francisco could see “Le Corsaire” or “La Bayadere,” but perhaps a revival of “The Sleeping Beauty” is a more realistic hope.
Presented by San Francisco Ballet
Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. today-Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday
Tickets: Sold out; $10 standing room tickets may be available day of show
Contact: (415) 861-5600, www.sfballet.org
Note: Tickets for “Cinderella” in 2014 are currently only available with subscriptions.