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Wheeldon makes 'Cinderella' theatrical

Maria Kochetkova in Christopher Wheeldon’s Cinderella, San Francisco Ballet (photo © Erik Tomasson)

Christopher Wheeldon is a choreographer who misses more than he hits. The works reviewed at Ionarts show he has a flair for the dramatic, favoring striking visual effects through lighting, costumes, stagecraft, and puppetry. In few cases, however, has his ballet choreography stood out as striking. His take on The Winter's Tale was the strongest in this regard, and his Alice in Wonderland particularly weak. Wheeldon's new version of Cinderella, presented by San Francisco Ballet in 2013 and using the delightful Prokofiev score, makes its local debut at the Kennedy Center Opera House this week. As seen at opening night on Wednesday, it falls on the Alice side of things.

This Cinderella is more an evening of wordless, pantomimed theater than a ballet in the true sense. It abounds in childish slapstick humor that still drew loud chortles, and the fairy tale visual storytelling will keep children wide-eyed, including one down the row from us who talked throughout the whole, three-hour evening. Anyone looking for the hallmarks of classical ballet will be disappointed. There are no memorable solo dances, no great pas de deux, and no lush use of the corps as anything but colorful backdrop. One does not expect to see a corps de ballet asked to sashay in place; countless other movements given by Wheeldon would not be out of place in a Broadway chorus scene. From a ballet point of view, this was one of the most boring evenings I have experienced in the theater.

Wheeldon and his scenarist, Craig Lucas, fill in the backstory, opening with the death of Cinderella's mother. As in The Winter's Tale he inserts a strong male friendship, between Prince Guillaume (Joseph Walsh) and his pal Benjamin (Taras Domitro), also both shown as children in the opening scenes. Benjamin initiates his own romance with the nicer of the two stepsisters (apprentice Ellen Rose Hummel, matched with the more vicious Sasha De Sola), to no great advantage for the ballet. Four Fates, male dancers who repeatedly lifted the inert Cinderella (otherwise beautiful and charming Maria Kochetova) around the stage, were a needless distraction. The stereotypes of Russians (made with Prokofiev's music), Spaniards, and Balinese in the divertissement were at the edge of appalling. The visual coups are the only achievement, with especially memorable sequences involving a growing tree and Cinderella's carriage (overseen by Basil Twist).

Worst of all, Wheeldon is not a choreographer driven by music. When he works with a new composition, he turns to a composer who does not write great music. Here, working with one of the great scores of the 20th century -- not played to perfection by the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, under Martin West -- too many of his gestures seemed mostly or entirely disconnected from the musical gestures. It was the same feeling elicited by Wheeldon's This Bitter Earth, but that was with a musical trifle by comparison. Then again, most versions of Cinderella do not not quite please: Ashton (too saccharine), Ratmansky (too caustic), and others. The way to make the score work with the choreography, though, would seem to be to take one's cue from the music.

Performances continue through October 30, in the Kennedy Center Opera House.

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