. . . not enough horsepower pulling the old carriage to get there.
To be perfectly frank and utterly truthful – yes, rare as that is – whenever Haglund comes face-to-face with a brand new ballet these days, he expects something on the order of Moose Murders* but with the added torment that ballet artistic directors never know when to cut their losses. They just keep bringing back their Moose Murders throughout the season as scheduled, no matter how awful. If anyone needs specific examples, just moo this way.
So it was with the lowest of expectations that Haglund schlepped up to Lincoln Center to see San Francisco Ballet’s presentation of Christopher Wheeldon’s Cinderella. On Wednesday night, Haglund left after the first act because he disliked the saccharine little-girlness of Maria Kochetkova’s Cinderella. But Thursday night was a different story.
Before getting down to the nitty-gritty, Haglund wants to say that he is glad that Christopher Wheeldon continues to make story ballets. We have good reason to expect that in the coming decades, if he continues in earnest, Wheeldon will create full-length works of lasting value that will touch people’s hearts. His one-act story ballets, even the bad ones, have always contained inventive and interesting elements that were pleasing even when the whole effort wasn't fulfilling.
Back to Cinderella, Wheeldon’s second full-length story ballet –
Happy to report that it’s not Moose Murders, not anywhere close. The production values, which are becoming more and more elaborate with each Wheeldon ballet, are extraordinary in their invention and beauty. A Basil Twist-designed huge leafy tree billows in the breeze and suddenly morphs into Cinderella’s carriage with horses that carry her off to the ball. Cinematic scrims and backdrops. Floating chairs. Sumptuous costumes. Imaginative puppetry. Lots of money spent to good effect.
Wheeldon’s creation of a prologue that addresses the death of Cinderella’s mother is the most original and effective choreographic element of the whole production. Two minutes into the ballet, Haglund’s eyes were misty. Cinderella’s mother coughed blood into her handkerchief, and then both the mother and the father made an effort to hide it from their young daughter remarkably played by SFB School student, Isabella Castillo. When the mother died, she was lifted to heaven by the fates (Gaetano Amico, Daniel Deivison, Anthony Spaulding, Shane Wuerthner) following one final hover over her husband and daughter during which she rounded her arms in a first position halo. Bravo, Wheeldon.
In Act I, the transition from Castillo’s child Cinderella to SFB principal Sarah Van Patten’s Cinderella occurred with a smooth passing of a bouquet of flowers as the character approached her mother’s gravesite. There she danced happily to the heavens before addressing the cold, hard reality of the tombstone. Then we saw Cinderella, not as a child, but as a young girl on the verge of womanhood – a time when she most missed and needed her mother’s guidance and love. Van Patten’s sense of loss and need were palpable whereas the evening before Kochetkova was unable to shake her one-note little girlness.
Throughout the evening Van Patten was a luminous and lyrical Cinderella who found the love of her dreams through the music even when the choreography was not there to help her. The easy sweep of her classically shaped limbs were in stark contrast to the muscly punchiness of the previous evening’s Cinderella. Her modesty and purity shown through each phrase that she danced.
Prokofiev’s big waltzes in his Cinderella score are beloved by dancers and audiences for the unbridled passion of the grand crescendos. But if Prokofiev’s emotions in his music spanned a range from 1 to 10, Wheeldon’s choreography with its own narrow emotive range of 4 to 6, or at best 3 to 7, never came close to meeting the depths and peaks of this great and glorious music.
Tiit Helimets, in his debut as the prince, was a gallant partner. His solos weren’t as polished as they could have been and at times he seemed to be holding back his energy. Hansuke Yamamoto’s virtuosity as the prince’s friend was impressive.
Besides the choreography's unresponsiveness to the iconic music, the other major weakness of the production was the portrayal of the step-sisters as neither mean-spirited nor ugly nor crass nor inflicting misery upon Cinderella. Rather, they were like pretty pretend-mean girls - harmless and only slightly annoying. Because the step-sisters were given large chunks of choreography designed to show that the women portraying them were fine dancers as opposed to showing their characters, their presence became increasingly irksome as the night went on. The step-sisters were a major miscalculation by Wheeldon.
The corps de ballet's sections in the ballroom scene were inventive and eye-pleasing. The corps's choreography seemed to come close to the peaks of the music with lots of lifts and swirling movements.
The flat and uneventful final scene of the ballet ended with Cinderella and her prince simply standing downstage in an embrace. It all might have worked better with input from a theater director. Big ballets should end with significance. It doesn't matter if the music is solemn or quiet – look what MacMillan did with the last few dying woodwind notes of Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet. Hopefully, it will soon be standard operating procedure for choreographers with big plans for story ballets to consult with theater directors for help in bringing their ideas to the stage.
By the end of the evening, Haglund concluded that Wheeldon had not captured either the passion or the comedy of the fairytale. Like most artists who work within a classical art form, he is probably painfully aware of all the shortcomings of his Cinderella. Unsatisfactory passages probably keep him awake at night like a troublesome line of iambic pentameter keeps the poet from his sleep. Let’s hope, anyway.
The H.H. Pump Bump Award, with sweeping graceful lines by Borgezie, is bestowed upon Sarah Van Patten. What a delight it has been for New York dance audiences to discover this artist.