Christopher Wheeldon’s Cinderella is an ideal way for the San Francisco Ballet to end its repertory season. Like a good dessert, no matter how much you indulged in the company’s numerous programs and performances over the last fifteen weeks, there’s still room for this elegant confection. As a 2012 co-production with the Dutch National Ballet, Wheeldon assembled for Cinderella a creative dream team that included Julian Crouch (scenic and costume design), puppeteer Basil Twist (tree and carriage sequence design and direction), Natasha Katz (lighting design) and Daniel Brodie (projection design). The end result is a clever, intelligent, fresh take on the old classic, with a touch of the weird injected that makes the production fun for adults and children alike.

Frances Chung and Joseph Walsh in Wheeldon's <i>Cinderella</i> © Erik Tomasson
Frances Chung and Joseph Walsh in Wheeldon's Cinderella
© Erik Tomasson

Wheeldon and librettist Craig Lucas drew from the Brothers Grimm version of the story (think: a magic tree that grows from Cinderella’s tears over her mother’s grave) rather than the Charles Perrault version (pumpkins and a fairy godmother). This production includes a prologue: the young Cinderella observes her mother succumb to tuberculosis, in a brief but poignant scene that also introduces four Fates (brilliantly danced by Daniel Deivison-Oliveira, Francisco Mungamba, Mingxuan Wang and Wei Wang) who will watch over and support Cinderella – literally and figuratively – through the story. A second vignette gives us a young Prince Guillaume, goofing around with servant’s son and best friend, Benjamin, who lends the prince both humor and humanity.

Cinderella’s evil stepfamily has been toned down, with an elder stepsister still spiteful and bullying, but toward her own sister, as well as Cinderella. When Prince Guillaume (performed Friday night by Joseph Walsh) and Benjamin (a hilariously engaging Taras Domitro) leave the palace to deliver invitations to the ball, they switch identities outside Cinderella’s home. The prince becomes a commoner begging for food, while Benjamin delivers the invite. Sasha De Sola and Ellen Rose Hummel, as the two stepsisters, were vividly comic. De Sola, in particular, threw herself into her graceless dance, with kicks, elbows and hunched shoulders, trying to impress “the prince.” Jennifer Stahl, as stepmother Hortensia, was equally entertaining in her artlessness.

Frances Chung and Joseph Walsh in Wheeldon's <i>Cinderella</i> © Erik Tomasson
Frances Chung and Joseph Walsh in Wheeldon's Cinderella
© Erik Tomasson

Throughout, Prokofiev’s gorgeous, moody 1940 score connected beautifully with the choreography. The San Francisco Ballet Orchestra, conducted by Martin West, gave a stirring rendition, through the melodic and the spells of quirky dissonance. The slightly off-kilter nature reappeared in some of Wheeldon's choreography, in a gentle leaning from side to side by the ensemble, at first so subtle, it gave one a feeling of disequilibrium to watch. Later, the women of the ensemble were literally off-kilter when their partners carried them at an angle, as though they were boards being transported. It was both eerie and brilliant. 

Frances Chung, as Cinderella, brought a delightful girlishness to her demeanor and refined movements. Joseph Walsh was an appealing Prince Guillaume, delivering powerful jumps and leaps, offering playfulness behind his prince-ness. Their first dance, inside Cinderella’s home, showed their human sides: the prince as an ordinary guy and Cinderella laughing in chagrin after stepping on his foot.

Instead of a fairy godmother, Cinderella receives support from not just the Fates, but her magical tree, and four sets of spirits, the “seasons,” who teach Cinderella to dance, while endowing her with gifts of lightness, generosity, mystery and fluidity. Thereafter, the stage fills with delightfully weird forest creatures: oversized woodland birds, a pair of giant, potato-head characters (complete with bunny ears) and toad-like creatures. A mystical transformation yields Cinderella clad in a splendid gown and before our eyes, her magic coach is created and transports her, a spectacular sight.

Frances Chung and artists of San Francisco Ballet © Erik Tomasson
Frances Chung and artists of San Francisco Ballet
© Erik Tomasson

Act II brings two dozen chandeliers, a ballroom and a sumptuously dressed ensemble of waltzing dancers in blue and purple. In a humorous nod to Swan Lake, three visiting foreign princesses (Elizabeth Mateer, Kimberly Marie Olivier, WanTing Zhao as Russian, Spanish and Balinese, respectively) attempt to win over the prince. When the three women promenaded him, culminating in a hilariously improbable pose (Spanish and Balinese on either side and Russian, headdress and all, beneath his legs) the prince looked terrified.

At Cinderella’s arrival, the four Fates gently steer the ensemble couples away in an elegant rippling motion. The sense of easy, flowing movement was lovely to behold, and Chung and Walsh’s dancing carried that feeling, until the inevitable stroke-of-midnight gong replaced dreamy with panic.

The show stealer is the opening scene of Act III, as the curtain rises to reveal a line of females, both human and forest-creature, seated, waiting to try on the slipper the prince holds. It’s brilliant, laugh-out-loud clever. The ballet’s conclusion brings no surprise; a final pas de deux seemed almost surplus, but all in sentimental fun. Ultimately, it’s a satisfying close to not just an engaging ballet, but another engaging season.