“Art is long, and life is short,” the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates once commented, possibly in reference to Christopher Wheeldon’s Cinderella. Crammed with magical moments – thanks in large part to Julian Crouch and Basil Twist’s wondrous designs, Natasha Katz’ splendid lighting, and Sergei Prokofiev at his most lush and moody – this lavish production showcases Wheeldon’s fluid choreography and deft ensemble work.

Maria Kochetkova and Joan Boada © Erik Tomasson
Maria Kochetkova and Joan Boada
© Erik Tomasson

Inspired by the Grimm Brothers’ version of events, rather than Charles Perrault’s fashion-obsessed fable, the intriguing libretto by playwright Craig Lucas steers clear of Grimms’ darker elements. The two mean stepsisters are not punished by pigeons who pluck out their eyeballs, nor does their evil mother hand them a cleaver with which to chop off a toe in a desperate attempt to fit their feet into the mission-critical golden pointe shoe.

Instead, Wheeldon and company focus on the imagery of a magic tree that grows at Cinderella’s mother’s gravesite, and that shelters a covey of phantasmagorical woodland creatures who minister to Cinderella – in lieu of Perrault’s Anna Wintour-like fairy godmother, whose answer to all life’s dilemmas is a ballgown and a pair of glass Jimmy Choos.

Our modern-day Cinderella is more of an environmentally friendly gal, for whom giant seedpods and other elements of nature coalesce into a magnificent wind-powered carriage. She survives her stepmother’s humiliations by living partly in a dream world peopled by “Fates”: four strapping young men in tie-dyed harem pants and gold-painted faces, who lend a hand with the housework, move scenery around, and provide air transport for ballerinas, adding a faint air of the occult to the proceedings.

Maria Kochetkova as Cinderella © Erik Tomasson
Maria Kochetkova as Cinderella
© Erik Tomasson

But enchantment fades as these Fates keep popping up at odd moments, their movement a gallimaufry of modern dance, Broadway, and gymnastic floor routines. Cinderella overstays her welcome at the ball, her heroic prince starts to show signs of fatigue at all the acrobatic lifting, and her stepsisters’ slapstick drags on interminably.

Wheeldon apparently did no pruning after last season’s much-heralded première by co-producers Dutch National Ballet and San Francisco Ballet. So San Francisco audiences at last night’s opening were stuck with hackneyed jokes about women with silicone implants, bad breath, and missing legs, about boozers (stepmother Hortensia), and nymphomaniacs (the foreign princesses, and stepsister Edwina) – collectively setting the feminist movement back a few decades. The diminutive, spirited Maria Kochetkova did her best to imbue Cinderella with a streak of independence but the extended romantic pas de deux with Joan Boada preempted any bra-burning.

Maria Kochetkova in Wheeldon's Cinderella © Erik Tomasson
Maria Kochetkova in Wheeldon's Cinderella
© Erik Tomasson

My four dates, the youngest 7, the oldest 12, who have all sat gamely through Beethoven’s Ninth, Bizet’s four-act Carmen, and Pina in 3D, were ready to pack it in after Act II. “We know what happens,” the 7-year-old pointed out wearily.

But in the end they were glad they stayed for the hilarious shoe-fitting scene that opens Act III. A gaggle of aristocratic young ladies, joined by a handful of Mr Twist’s fabulous forest creatures, fidget hopefully in a long row of chairs, waiting their turn to try on the golden pointe shoe. When Prince Guillaume arrives at stepsister Edwina, her social-climbing mother pulls out an enormous mallet and hammers the shoe onto Edwina’s foot. Then the row of gilt chairs float up to form a sort of furniture mobile, twisting eerily over the subsequent domestic drama.

In another feat of design wizardry, chandeliers from the ballroom scene drop down through the branches of Twist’s magnificent tree to set the stage for the wedding. This inspired fusion of nature and artifice drew admiring gasps from my jaded dates.

Shannon Rugani gave a tour de force in the role of Hortensia, her drunken bourrées belying a formidable technique. Sasha De Sola was funny and fearsome as Edwina, while Frances Chung and Taras Domitro nearly stole the show as Clementine and Benjamin, the kinder, timid stepsister and the prince’s wingman, who fall for each other at the ball. Domitro and Boada were at their finest as they horsed around in the palace and at the ball, refusing to take the marriage-making seriously.

The Spirits of Lightness, Generosity, Mystery and Fluidity, costumed in shades of green, orange, gold and aqua, hair spiky and tinted to match, were a marvel as they coached Cinderella for the ball, each platoon superbly led in turn by Dores André, Jaime Garcia Castillo, Hansuke Yamamoto and Jennifer Stahl. 

The ensemble in the ballroom scene pivoted brilliantly from stately waltz to a brittle, Fosse-inflected routine of empty, antsy gestures, as if mocking the stilted social conventions that bind them.

The choreography occasionally fails to live up to the music at its most splendid. Prokofiev’s score – which was composed in wartime Russia following the Nazi invasion – turns apocalyptic as the clock strikes midnight: we can hear the threatening chimes in the music, but the absence of a clock in this libretto creates a dilemma which Wheeldon fails to resolve. Otherwise, Wheeldon’s swapping around of the music fits his vision admirably, and the San Francisco Ballet orchestra under the keen direction of Martin West dispatched it vividly.