Composer: Sergei Prokofiev
Choreographer: Christopher Wheeldon
Assistant to the Choreographer: Jacquelin Barrett
Libretto: Craig Lucas
Scenic and Costume Designer: Julian Crouch
Lighting Designer: Natasha Katz
Tree and Carriage Sequence Direction/Design: Basil Twist
Projection Designer: Daniel Brodie
Scenic Associate: Frank McCullagh
World Premiere: December 13, 2012—Dutch National Ballet, Het Muziektheater;
U.S. Premiere: May 3, 2013—San Francisco Ballet, War Memorial Opera House; San Francisco, California
Co-production with the Dutch National Ballet.
Maria Kotchetkova in Wheeldon’s Cinderella (© Erik Tomasson)
The heart of the old, the spirit of the new. Christopher Wheeldon’s Cinderella, a co-production of San Francisco Ballet and Dutch National Ballet, with a design team culled from Broadway and beyond, boasts innovation and modern twists. But the story is the same uplifting one told in various ways through the centuries. Set to the nuanced score by Sergei Prokofiev, Wheeldon’s Cinderella premiered in Amsterdam on December 13, 2012, and then raced across the Atlantic to San Francisco like a char-girl dashing from a ballroom to make its U.S. premiere.
Wheeldon, formerly a resident choreographer of New York City Ballet and founder/artistic director of his own company, is now an artistic associate at The Royal Ballet—and one of the most in-demand dancemakers working today. The prolific choreographer has been a frequent presence at SF Ballet over the last decade. Cinderella, his eighth commission (a total of 12 Wheeldon ballets are in the repertory), was his first full-length work for the Company.
Part of Wheeldon’s strength as a dancemaker, according to Helgi Tomasson, SF Ballet’s artistic director and principal choreographer, is that each of his works seems to have something unique. That goes for his approach to a well-known classic too. “I see Christopher approaching Cinderella in a different way,” Tomasson said during the rehearsal period, referring to both visuals and storytelling.
Tomasson is right. In Wheeldon’s Cinderella, there’s no fairy godmother, no pumpkin coach, no clock striking midnight. But you won’t miss them a bit when there’s a tree onstage that lives and “dances,” taking animation to a grand scale. You won’t miss them when stunning visuals create a world you wish you could enter, or when Cinderella shows backbone and her Prince’s charm runs deep. And you won’t miss them when the dancing and the storytelling come from Wheeldon.
In terms of story, Wheeldon’s Cinderella offers more substance than the fairy tale it’s based on. “What I wanted to do,” says the choreographer, “was echo some of the darkness in the music by taking some of the themes from the Brothers Grimm version rather than the [Charles] Perrault version,” with its fairy godmother and pumpkin coach. “The Grimm version is more serious and a bit darker, centered around nature and the spirit of mother.” From it Wheeldon borrowed the idea of a tree that grows from the grave of Cinderella’s mother, “the deliverer of all things magic, which I think is more poetic [than a fairy godmother] and quite beautiful. There are comic moments because there’s comedy written into the music, but it’s a more serious Cinderella in a way.”
San Francisco Ballet in Wheeldon’s Cinderella (© Erik Tomasson)
Prokofiev began writing the music for Cinderella for the Kirov Ballet (now Mariinsky) in 1940, immediately after the Russian premiere, at the Kirov, of his full-blooded Romeo and Juliet. But World War II intervened and he shelved the project for two years. When he finally completed Cinderella, it was given its first performance at the Bolshoi Ballet, not the Kirov, in November 1945.
“I love it,” says Music Director and Principal Conductor Martin West about the score. “It’s immediately striking, and also astonishingly clever,” when you take a closer look, for example, at “the way the themes come around, the way he could create an atmosphere out of something very simple.” Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, West says, “came from the heart, but Cinderella is more cerebral. It takes longer to get into, but once you’ve lived with it, it starts to eat at you. Some of it is so beautiful.”
Beautiful enough, in fact, that the music is the main reason Principal Dancer Maria Kochetkova had yearned to dance Cinderella for years. As a student at the Bolshoi, she watched a video of the ballet with Raisa Struchkova in the title role. “It was my dream to perform it,” Kochetkova says, and “not because of the pas de deux or unusual costumes or story that I wanted to act. It was because of the music.” Her favorite part of the score varies with her mood, she says. “Sometimes it’s the waltz; sometimes I really like the first-act music.” Even though the story is a fairy tale, “the score makes it so much more realistic and dramatic,” she says. “It takes it to a whole different level.”
Cinderella has a lengthy pedigree, but until Sir Frederick Ashton made his production for Sadler’s Wells Ballet in 1948, the full-length had been done only in Russia. The first production, choreographed by Marius Petipa with Enrico Cecchetti and Lev Ivanov, premiered at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg in 1893. Based on Perrault’s 1697 telling of the ancient fairy tale, it had music by Baron B. Fitinghof- Schell and Pierina Legnani (the first ballerina to do 32 consecutive fouettés) and Paul Gerdt in the leads.
The next version seen in Russia was Rostislav Zakharov’s (the version Kochetkova saw), choreographed for the Bolshoi Ballet in 1945 and for which the Prokofiev score was written. A year later, Konstantin Sergeyev made a Cinderella, also using the Prokofiev score, for the Kirov State Theatre of Opera and Ballet in St. Petersburg, featuring Natalia Dudinskaya. In the West, a one-act version by Michel Fokine with music by Frédéric d’Erlanger preceded Zahkarov’s full-length, premiering at London’s Royal Opera House in 1938.
Ashton, whose Cinderella carries the distinction of being the first English full-length ballet in the tradition of the 19th-century classics, also based his ballet on the Perrault fairy tale and used the Prokofiev score. And he revived an old tradition by casting men in female roles—Robert Helpmann and himself as the Ugly Sisters. Margot Fonteyn, Ashton’s choice for Cinderella, was injured in early rehearsals, and so it was Moira Shearer (of The Red Shoes fame) who created the role.
Ashton’s Cinderella was followed by an onslaught of productions, including Vaslav Orlikovsky’s (International Dance Festival, Paris, 1963); Sergeyev’s revised production (Kirov, 1964); Ben Stevenson’s (National Ballet, Washington, D.C., 1970); Mikhail Baryshnikov and Peter Anastos’ (American Ballet Theatre, 1984); Rudolf Nureyev’s (Paris Opera Ballet, 1986); Kent Stowell’s (Pacific Northwest Ballet, 1994); Michael Corder’s (English National Ballet, 1996); Stanton Welch’s (Australian Ballet, 1997); Alexei Ratmansky’s (Mariinsky Ballet, 2002); James Kudelka’s (National Ballet of Canada, 2004); Ashley Page’s (Scottish Ballet, 2005); SF Ballet Choreographer in Residence Yuri Possokhov’s (Bolshoi Ballet, 2006); and David Bintley’s (Birmingham Royal Ballet, 2010).
Cinderella first graced the stage at San Francisco Ballet in a 1973 production by Lew Christensen and Michael Smuin, then co-artistic directors. This new version, with all the technological advantages of the 21st century, began percolating when Tomasson and Wheeldon were discussing a new full-length ballet for the Company. Because Dutch National Ballet also wanted a full-length from Wheeldon, a co-production made economic sense.
Creating a production on two continents simultaneously isn’t easy, however. “It was my crazy idea,” says Wheeldon, laughing. “They’re both putting the money up, and all dancers love to have something created on them, so I said, ‘I’ll do some of it here and some of it there, and we’ll make it work.’ ” Several Dutch National principal dancers rehearsed in San Francisco for a few weeks in summer 2012, and some from SF Ballet went to Amsterdam that November, so that choreography could be created on both companies at once.
“It promotes a nice cultural exchange,” says Wheeldon, “but it has its pluses and minuses. [One] dancer hasn’t necessarily followed it through from beginning to end. On the other hand, more people have had the benefit of being created on.”
In creating a world for his characters to inhabit, Wheeldon assembled an artistic team with imaginations as big as his own. Step one was brainstorming with playwright and librettist Craig Lucas, who describes the early stages of Cinderella as “a constant back and forth, teasing out what was exciting and a shared understanding of the story.” He and Wheeldon wanted “to burrow into possibilities we had never seen explored.”
Those possibilities included a substitute for the fairy godmother—an essential element, according to Wheeldon. “We all toy with the idea that loved ones are always watching over us in some way,” he says. He and Lucas settled on the tree that grows when Cinderella cries over her mother’s grave (in effect, a character, “a living thing that could embrace the action,” says Lucas) and four Fates who offer guidance and protection.
Wheeldon also knew he wanted his Cinderella to be more in charge of her destiny than she is depicted traditionally. Yes, she’s still a servant in her own home, but “she knows she doesn’t have to be there forever,” the choreographer says. “It is good versus evil; it is that if you’re a good person things can come out right. But it’s not saying if you’re meek or subservient you’ll be rewarded.”
San Francisco Ballet in Wheeldon’s Cinderella (© Erik Tomasson)
Wheeldon’s concept of an empowered Cinderella suits Kochetkova just fine, “because I feel like you do have to fight for things in life, but by being a good person, not by pushing others out of the way. I feel like she’s a really strong character.” Cinderella gains some of her strength from four spirits (seasonal fairies in Prokofiev’s score), who, while teaching her to dance, imbue her with such gifts as elegance and lightness of being. The steps they teach her form the basis of her solo at the Prince’s ball.
Cinderella’s Prince, too, is deeper than in traditional versions; Wheeldon wanted him to be more than “just a handsome mug.” So he and Lucas gave him a childhood and a best friend who offers a bit of classic fun with mistaken identity. When Cinderella meets the Prince, he’s masquerading as his own servant, so “the Prince sees who Cinderella really is,” says Lucas. “She isn’t reacting to someone’s status; she is treating him [respectfully] as she would the lowliest person, something he isn’t used to experiencing. He has no idea that Cinderella is also hiding her own identity.”
But what’s a story without a setting? Wheeldon chose Julian Crouch to do the sets and costumes because of his “very fantastical approach to design. He always seems to embrace the darker side of the fairy tales he’s done,” he says. Crouch has designed for theater, opera, and musicals, but ballet was an entirely new world for him. He discovered that “it needs to be fluid. And I think this version of Cinderella is more fluid than the traditional,” he says. “It moves scene to scene more rapidly; it has more locations. So for me it’s been an exercise in suggestion, really—I’ve had to suggest a location and support the atmosphere and then move fluidly to the next one.” As for the costumes, he says there’s “a looseness about them. Fairy tales are ‘once upon a time,’ not ‘once upon 1870.’ [The period is] generally 1800s, but spread over the century. Each character is allowed to drift a bit in time. I’d say it’s timeless; in that sense it has a fluidity as well.”
Crouch describes his method as “like a purifying process.” Sets come before the costumes, and he starts by collecting images that stimulate his imagination. Then he distills them down to the essence of what he’s looking for. “You collect these things and they become the beginning of a conversation, with yourself, but also with the people you’re collaborating with.”
One of his collaborators is award-winning puppeteer Basil Twist, who trained at École Supérieure Nationale des Arts de la Marionnette in Charleville-Mézières, France. His primary job on Cinderella was to make the tree be more than mere scenery—a character that would, in effect, dance. The mechanics aren’t that difficult, he says; it’s just like moving any piece of scenery. But then “you get to the moment when you’re choreographing for the tree, to the music, and you’re saying, ‘Now it makes this shape; now it’s that shape.' You feel the tree as you would a dancer. That’s when it comes alive.”
Twist has done many productions involving dance and music (including the Obie Award–winning Symphonie Fantastique, which caught Wheeldon’s eye), and his work spans continents. Despite having lofty credentials, what holds particular meaning for him is the tree he’s bringing to life for Cinderella. “This is maybe corny, but as a child I always used to go to [SF Ballet’s] Nutcracker,” he says. “And the tree growing onstage—it’s one of the reasons I work in the theater. I so loved that moment.” So he’s thrilled, he says, to be “doing my own tree on the same stage.”
To enhance that tree, the design plan calls for projections—not in a major way, Crouch says, but to “support the atmosphere, like the lighting does.” And lighting is where Natasha Katz comes in. No stranger to ballet, she has designed several of Wheeldon’s works (including Continuum, created for SF Ballet). To her, Cinderella is “a piece about transitions. Cinderella has moments of revelation and transition, and they’re all tapered to a place of joy.” What that means in terms of lighting, she says, is that “you can’t have light without darkness. The lighting really is the chiaroscuro of emotion. We’re going to have darkness when it’s emotionally dark, and we’re going to have joy when we’re supposed to have joy, and that is light and fluffy and beautiful and fun.”
Lighting is a form of storytelling, and Katz works to keep her design cohesive “so that it arcs with the story. I know that sounds overly intellectualized, but it really is, for me, the truth as a lighting designer. Just like a character, the lighting has to take an arc.” And, as in music, there are motifs, recurring themes of color or pattern that Katz returns to at key moments.
What’s most exciting about this Cinderella, says Katz, “is that it’s completely new, that we all started from the same place together.” She wasn’t one of those little girls who dreamed of being Cinderella— but if she had been, she says, “this is the Cinderella I would have dreamed about.”
Program notes by Cheryl A. Ossola