Sure, “Cinderella” is a fairy tale. But still, wouldn't it feel just a tad more realistic if Cinderella and her Prince had a bit more time to get to know each other before falling madly in love? That meeting at the ball has always seemed a little, well, rushed.
That's just one of the intriguing variations that popular choreographer Christopher Wheeldon has made in his new “Cinderella,” which hits New York's Lincoln Center next week, via the San Francisco Ballet. Here, Cinderella and the prince get to know each other a little before they even get to the ball, and Wheeldon gets to play up the parallels in their lives.
“I was interested in the idea that they have similar circumstances,” says Wheeldon. “They meet and recognize similar qualities in each other. She's trapped in this familial environment that is vitriolic, whereas he's feeling trapped with his responsibilities. All he wants is to fall in love and be a normal guy. I thought of the royal princes today in the UK.”
Just how the two meet before the ball, and who each think the other is, is better saved for the viewing. But it's not the only change Wheeldon has made to the most familiar ballet version: Frederick Ashton's, for the Royal Ballet in 1948. Wheeldon notes that he's based his version not on the lighter (and more familiar) Perrault version of the tale, but the later — and darker — Brothers Grimm version. As for the prince-Cinderella early meeting, he took that from the 19th-century Rossini opera. (The music, though, will be familiar to many: Wheeldon uses the well-known Prokofiev score.)
The 40-year-old British choreographer is one of the busiest in the business. Just this week, it was announced he'd be directing a new stage musical aimed at Broadway, “An American in Paris,” based on the Oscar-winning film (a premiere is planned for December 2014 in Paris, with an eye to Broadway in 2015.) Wheeldon has the role of artistic associate at the Royal Ballet in London, but he's best known for his many works for New York City Ballet, where he also was a dancer.
“Cinderella,” though, is from neither New York nor London. A joint production of the San Francisco Ballet, with which Wheeldon also has a long association, and the Dutch National Ballet, it premiered in Amsterdam last December and played in San Francisco in May, where it earned largely glowing reviews and sold out its run.
“Oh my gosh, standing room was five deep,” says Helgi Tomasson, director of the San Francisco troupe. He attributes the popularity to several factors: enthusiasm for Wheeldon's work, advance word of its highly colorful and distinctive look, and, of course, the universally known story.
Indeed, it's a reality these days that the name “Cinderella” — or “Swan Lake,” or “Nutcracker” — can fill a huge theater with eager families, and company directors need to consider the economics of the situation, particularly when creating a full-length production with elaborate sets and costumes. Still, say both Wheeldon and Tomasson, there's enough that's new and different about this “Cinderella” to more than justify a new version of the old tale.
“We all know Ashton's, but Chris wanted this one to be different,” Tomasson says, “and he succeeded. Visually it's stunning to look at. The choreography is beautiful. And there's a real sense of magic in these changes that happen right before your eyes.”
He's referring to the noted sets, which include, among many things, a tree that transforms into Cinderella's chariot to take her to the ball. That tree is connected to a central force of the story: Cinderella's late mother.
“The tree grows at Cinderella's mother's grave,” Wheeldon says. “It becomes the magical essence of Cinderella's love for her mother.” Also stemming from that tree are four “Fates,” who together serve as a Fairy Godmother.
And what of the choreography? Principal dancer Sarah Van Patten, who plays Cinderella and, in other performances, one of the ugly stepsisters, says it feels “organic.”
“You feel like you can breathe with the movement,” she says. “It really comes across when the choreography makes you feel light.”
“It's really stunning to watch,” she adds of the entire production. “Even when I'm dancing it, I'm thinking, 'Wow, this is impressive.'”