Basil Twist, a puppeteer, defines that term broadly—as bringing inanimate objects to life. His genius (and he has the receipts, earning a MacArthur Genius Grant in 2015) is noticing the way objects and materials move and flow, and drawing upon these characteristics to transform them. It takes a creative eye to realize, for example, that a swath of silk could billow into a carriage or that projections could animate a tree, making it wave and sway and seemingly “dance.”
Twist grew up in San Francisco, the child and grandchild of puppeteers. His mother founded a group of puppeteers who performed at hospitals and schools, and his maternal grandfather, Griff Williams, was a big band leader who included puppets that resembled Cab Calloway and Harry James in his shows. Twist made puppets as a kid, grew out of it in high school, returned to puppetry as a college student in New York City, and was admitted to the three-year program at France’s national school for puppeteers in Charleville-Mézières. He’s the only American to have graduated from the program.
Back in New York, his breakout work, Symphonie Fantastique, originated when he found a discarded fish tank. After repairing it, Twist experimented with the different ways fabric and other materials like feathers and bubbles moved in water. For the show, he upgraded to a 500-gallon tank and, similar to a choreographer, set abstract movement to music, in this case Berlioz’ symphony.
Twist’s career has since exploded, and extends from Broadway shows to the film Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, on which he consulted for the underwater puppetry. On Broadway, Twist has contributed to Charlie and The Chocolate Factory;Oh, Hello; The Addams Family, for which he won a Drama Desk Award; and the Pee-wee Herman Show. Additional work includes The Araneidae Show, Dogugaeshi, Petrushka, Behind the Lid, Arias with a Twist, and Sister’s Follies, among others.
Symphonie Fantastique caught the eye of choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, and the two collaborated on Cinderella for San Francisco Ballet and Dutch National Ballet, The Winter’s Tale for the The Royal Ballet, and The Nutcracker for The Joffrey Ballet. In dance, Twist has also contributed to Darkness and Light with Pilobolus; Wonderboy with The Joe Goode Dance Company, Underground River with Jane Comfort & Company and Dorothy and the Prince of Oz, a Tulsa Ballet and BalletMet collaboration. His maverick Rite of Spring, a ballet without dancers, premiered in 2013 at UNC Chapel Hill and went on in 2014 at Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival.
“This is maybe corny, but as a child I always used to go to [SF Ballet’s] Nutcracker,” he continues. “And the tree growing onstage … it’s one of the reasons I work in the theater. I so loved that moment.” Twist is thrilled, he says, to have “my own tree on the same stage.”
In addition to the fairytale characters, Christopher Wheeldon’s Cinderella is filled with magical creatures, from Spirits of the Seasons who teach Cinderella to dance, to Tree Gnomes and Fates. Photographer Erik Tomasson captured many of the characters backstage, warming up, rehearsing, or just waiting for their cue—offering a close-up, behind-the-scenes at the quirky beauty of this production of Cinderella.
Choreographer Cathy Marston was reminded of Charles Webb’s novel The Graduate—on which the 1967 film is based—while browsing in a bookstore in the summer of 2018. Her ballet Snowblind had recently premiered at San Francisco Ballet and her mind quickly flitted to dancers who could embody the central characters of Mrs. Robinson and Benjamin. Glancing at the book jacket, she learned that the book had been written in San Francisco, and something clicked. “I immediately thought—this is it,” says Marston. “This is the piece that I need to make for San Francisco Ballet.”
Marston has become known for her skill in re-envisioning literary works through dance; in addition to her Jane Eyre, which premiered at Northern Ballet in 2016, she’s drawn inspiration from Wuthering Heights, A Tale of Two Cities,Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Dangerous Liaisons, Lolita, and, for SF Ballet’s 2018 Unbound festival, Ethan Frome. In choosing source material, she is often drawn to complex female protagonists such as Mrs. Robinson. “I like characters that aren’t straightforward,” she says. “I like stories where you can’t say who’s the good one and who’s the bad one, who’s guilty and who’s innocent.”
The character of Mrs. Robinson is so embedded in American pop culture that calling someone a “Mrs. Robinson” conjures an immediate mental picture: a sophisticated, cool, calculating older woman who seduces a younger man. But who really is Mrs. Robinson? “In the film, Anne Bancroft is impenetrable,” says Marston. “And that’s genius, because it means you project your own feelings onto hers. I suppose that was the inspiration for the ballet. I wanted to get underneath the surface and find out why Mrs. Robinson is as she is, why she does the things that she does, and make specific choices based on those answers.”
The characters of The Graduate walk a tightrope between the buttoned-up world of post-war American values and a just-emerging youth counterculture. In researching America in the 1960s, Marston realized that Betty Friedan’sThe Feminine Mystique was written the same year as The Graduate. Friedan’s watershed book introduced “the problem that has no name”—the widespread unhappiness of housewives expected to focus exclusively on cultivating domestic perfection. That Mrs. Robinson herself has no name other than her husband’s was not lost on Marston, and the correlation of the timing of the publication of the two books gave her an idea. “Wouldn’t it be lovely to rehabilitate Mrs. Robinson, so her destiny is not one of the lonely alcoholic? To give her a chance to have a new life, like some of the women of that era went on to find?”
Marston has a tried-and-true method of creating narrative works, one that involves significant planning long before she arrives in the studio to work with dancers. Since 2002, she has worked with dramaturg Edward Kemp, director of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, to map out the stories she creates onstage. It’s a rare collaboration in the dance field. “When I met Ed, he had systems that you don’t learn about in dance, in terms of structures, hooks, and just a sense of pacing and timing,” says Marston.
In reconsidering Mrs. Robinson, Marston and Kemp went through scenes step by step to anchor the story in her perspective. In the film, “the camera follows Benjamin very, very effectively,” Marston notes dryly. In the ballet, “we’ve tried to follow Mrs. Robinson. What does she want? Need? How does she feel? Where does she want to go?”
When she came to SF Ballet’s studios last summer, Marston worked on the nuances of each character with the dancers, coloring in the details within the overarching scaffolding. She set the characters of Benjamin and Mrs. Robinson on three different pairs of dancers, embracing the distinct interpretations they brought to the characters. “They’ve all got such interesting ways to bring emotion, physicality, and themselves to the roles,” she says. “I want to celebrate that. I don’t want to make them the same.”
In reframing the story, it was important to Marston to give Mrs. Robinson some sense of agency. When viewed through Mrs. Robinson’s eyes, the story “becomes much more about a woman who’s trapped in a situation that she didn’t plan,” says Marston. “We know that she got pregnant as a student. Like so many women at that time, she fell into a life that is not what she imagined and not what satisfies her.” In a final duet with his wife, Mr. Robinson puts his arms in a circle, a protective gesture that creates a symbolic shelter. Mrs. Robinson goes under the circle, explores it, then emerges, closing his arms gently but firmly, leaving him and the protection the marriage has provided.
The film The Graduate is also, of course, known for the iconic song Mrs. Robinson, written for the film by Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel. Because she was shifting perspectives, Marston asked composer Terry Davis to create a new score. “I was after music that was not as much about youth culture as about a woman who is in middle age,” says Marston. Davis incorporated saxophone and guitar into two distinct voices: the saxophone—with a sultry, late-night sound that references an earlier era—represents Mrs. Robinson, while the guitar adds a sense of the simmering counterculture.
In addition to the central characters, Marston enlists a corps de ballet of women, who move with the crisp efficiency of ideal mid-century femininity—and express the crippling impact of maintaining it. As the piece unfolds, the domestic goddesses are swept into the feminist movement in waves. Does Mrs. Robinson join them? Marston demurs. “I like that the film is ambiguous at the end,” she says. “And I’d quite like to echo that and leave it up to the audience as to the destiny of Mrs. Robinson.”
Cathy Marston’s Mrs. Robinson is part of Ballet Accelerator, which runs from March 24 to April 4.
Get to know this season’s complex, compelling heroines and the women bringing them to life.
From prima ballerinas to fairy princesses, female artists and characters have always had center stage in ballet. So much so that George Balanchine, the 20th century’s most influential choreographer, once said that “Ballet is woman.” But while women may get the balletic spotlight, their portrayals can sometimes seem out of step with the times.
Three of this season’s ballets celebrate famous female characters, but with a modern twist. Cinderella, Mrs. Robinson and Juliet originated in eras very different from our own, but the contemporary perspectives of our choreographers and dancers redefine them as thought-provoking, dynamic central figures in these works, saying goodbye to gendered stereotypes of eras past.
Cinderella is synonymous with fairy tales, and her name has conjured dreams of castles, princes, pumpkins and romance since the 1600s, and legends about a poor, mistreated girl rescued by a male hero date back thousands of years. She was ready for a makeover in 2012, when Christopher Wheeldon created our vibrant production, which was co-commissioned with Dutch National Ballet. Instead of the traditional Cinderella, a girl who is abused by her family until she marries the prince who saves her, Wheeldon’s Cinderella is a modern young woman who navigates her own journey to happiness.
“She’s not just a victim,” says Principal Dancer Dores André, who has performed the lead role since the ballet’s 2013 American premiere at the War Memorial Opera House. “She’s courageous, and she makes choices.” Wheeldon placed this Cinderella in the midst of a messy real life, and he took away the Fairy Godmother; Cinderella has to find her own way to cope with stepsisters who are both lovable and loathsome, and a stepmother with an alcohol problem. “The women in this ballet are not one-sided,” André adds. “Chris doesn’t create simple characters.”
Even Cinderella’s relationship with Prince Charming has unexpected depth, says Ballet Master Anita Paciotti. “You don’t just like these two because they’re good dancers,” she says, “you like them because they’re real with each other.” Rather than hoping a man will swoop in and sweep away her troubles, Cinderella claims her own power and meets him as an equal. As Paciotti says, “There’s a lot to see besides ‘Cinderella gets the prince.’”
Women’s liberation and the sexual revolution were only just beginning in 1967, when the iconic, Oscar-winning film The Graduate premiered. Based on the 1963 novella by Charles Webb, the film features Anne Bancroft as the dissatisfied forty-something housewife Mrs. Robinson and Dustin Hoffman as a 21-year-old college graduate she has an affair with. Mrs. Robinson is an icon of a less-equal era, and for this season’s commission, British choreographer Cathy Marston wanted to revisit the iconic character in light of the current culture.
“What we feel now about Mrs. Robinson is radically different to the commentary in 1967,” says Marston. “That’s an interesting dialog to be having today.” In mid-20th-century America, few women were able to pursue careers and financial independence; the stereotypical housewives of the era were “doing chores, sitting and staring into space,” Marston observes. “But they’re beginning to realize that it’s not enough.”
The 1960s may seem like a bygone age, but André, who co-created the lead role, sees parallels. “Mrs. Robinson doesn’t fit in,” she observes. “It’s this in-between position that I think a lot of people feel, where you’re trying to change but don’t know if you can.” Paciotti, who saw the movie in 1967, says that women still connect with Mrs. Robinson’s struggle. “She had been an art student, she had dreams of her own that never got fulfilled because she became a wife and mother. It’s completely relevant to the status of women today.”
Marston imbued the ballet with the same emotional ambiguity and eroticism that made the film so compelling, but she steers the plot toward a more hopeful outcome. Yet ultimately, Mrs. Robinson’s future is in the eyes of each observer. “It’s up to you to understand what she is going to do,” André says. “It shows that feminism is a personal journey, and everyone will experience it for themselves. That’s how life actually is.”
Juliet may be famous for loving Romeo, but Shakespeare’s tragic teenage heroine is far more than a hopeless romantic. “She’s a rebel,” says André. “She is questioning the status quo, and she is gonna fight against it.” Four centuries after the play’s 1596 publication, Juliet still embodies a woman’s odyssey toward standing up for her values, making her own choices and accepting the consequences.
Juliet’s refusal to marry Paris, the suitor her parents have chosen for her, reflects both the depth of her commitment to Romeo and the power of love to vanquish the hatred between their warring families. “She’s not going to stop herself from loving him,” says Paciotti, who often plays the pivotal role of Juliet’s nurse. “This is somebody trying to break the habit of the older generation, someone whose sense of humanity compels them to say, ‘Enough. I don’t want to fight anymore.’”
Indeed, there’s nothing cookie-cutter about Juliet, and her complexity lets every ballerina approach her in a unique way. “What’s so amazing about Juliet is that she’s a feminist before her time,” says corps de ballet member Jasmine Jimison. Juliet is the first lead role Jimison—still a teenager herself—is taking on, and she’s kept an eye on other dancers’ performances. “All the Juliets have very different interpretations,” Jimison says. “I relate to Juliet being young and happy, and having her first love.”
Paciotti sees Juliet as a role model unbound by time, place and culture. “She’s gutsy, she’s defiant, she’s willing to risk herself to change the status quo,” she says. “People see a better way, and that’s what sets them apart. That’s what makes them heroes.”
Although they originated in different eras and different parts of the world, Cinderella, Mrs. Robinson and Juliet represent universal aspects of women’s experiences. And though the original stories were written by men, it is the female artists of San Francisco Ballet who will bring the characters to life on the Opera House stage, in contemporary and uniquely personal ways. Discover your own perspective by experiencing all three ballets—and all of these compelling women.
Christopher Wheeldon’s Cinderella* will be part of SF Ballet’s 2020 Season, with performances Jan 21–Feb 2.
SCENE 1: GARDEN ESTATE
Young Cinderella is playing outside with her mother and father when suddenly her mother becomes ill. In terrifying rapidity, her mother is taken from her and Four Fates are left to watch over Cinderella, who weeps over her mother’s grave. A tree sprouts from her tears.
SCENE 2: ROYAL PALACE
The young Prince Guillaume and his friend Benjamin (the valet’s son) are pursued by Madame Mansard (the prince’s dancing mistress). They dash through the hallways of the palace, causing havoc. Suddenly King Albert and Queen Charlotte appear, stiff and formal. The king is appalled at Guillaume’s lack of discipline, but the queen is more forgiving. The boys dash off again into the garden.
SCENE 3: THE GRAVE
Cinderella, now older, brings flowers to her mother’s grave. Two girls, Clementine and Edwina, appear, followed by their mother Hortensia, on the arm of Cinderella’s father. Cinderella realizes that this is to be her new family. Hortensia hands Clementine a bouquet to present to Cinderella who, horrified on behalf of her dead mother, discards it. Her father insists that she take the flowers, but Cinderella hurls them at Hortensia’s feet. Cinderella’s father will not tolerate this behavior. Fueled by pride, Cinderella assumes a subservient attitude towards the women, thus sealing her own fate.
SCENE 4: ROYAL PALACE GALLERY
King Albert attempts to explain to his grown son the political connections to be gained by marrying a titled princess. Queen Charlotte writes invitations to an upcoming ball, where the prince will meet these prospective brides. Guillaume is distracted by Benjamin, who imitates the many foreign princesses in the portraits hanging on the walls. King Albert becomes enraged at his son’s lack of responsibility to his future kingdom, but Guillaume can’t believe his parents would force him into a loveless marriage. Albert insists the invitations be delivered in person by the prince himself. Guillaume and Benjamin hatch a plan to trade places, pretending to be one another.
SCENE 5: CINDERELLA’S KITCHEN
Cinderella stoically serves her family breakfast. The briefest sign of tenderness towards Cinderella from her father is frowned upon by Hortensia. Edwina follows closely in her mother’s footsteps, gaining favors from her. Clementine, the sweeter stepsister, is bullied into following suit. A poor beggar arrives at the door seeking food and warmth. Taking pity, Cinderella brings him into the kitchen, but Hortensia, horrified, casts him out again. “The Prince” (Benjamin) appears at the door. He has discovered the poor beggar outside and insists that Hortensia provide him with food and warmth. Hortensia feigns concern and orders Cinderella to help the beggar. “The Prince” has come to deliver invitations to a ball where he shall choose his bride. Left alone with Cinderella, the beggar (Prince Guillaume in disguise) sees true kindness in this girl. The two pretend to be at the ball, laughing and dancing.
SCENE 6: THE NIGHT OF THE BALL
Cinderella is cleaning the kitchen when the rest of her family appears, dressed for the ball. There was an invitation for Cinderella, but Hortensia throws it into the fire, and her family departs for the palace without Cinderella. The Fates, who have continued to watch over Cinderella, present her with her invitation and lead her to her mother’s grave.
SCENE 7: THE GRAVE
From the tree, spirits of Lightness, Fluidity, Generosity, and Mystery appear to teach Cinderella the steps she will need for the ball. Embraced by the branches, Cinderella is transformed and the Fates send her on her way to the ball — cryptically warning her to keep an eye on the time.
SCENE 1: THE PALACE BALLROOM
The ball is underway when Cinderella’s family arrives. The king and queen witness the rather tipsy arrival of Prince Guillaume and Benjamin, neither in correct attire for such a formal occasion. Cinderella’s stepsisters still believe Benjamin to be the prince, giving the two young men another chance for deception. Guillaume finds he is uninterested in any of the eligible ladies, stepsisters included. A magical atmosphere fills the ballroom as a mysterious masked girl arrives. Guillaume is immediately drawn to her. Cinderella, recognizing Guillaume as the urchin, turns to flee, but is gently guided back to him by the Fates. The couple waltz together. Seeing the interest the prince shows in this mysterious beauty, Hortensia takes to the bottle, humiliating herself. Benjamin dances with Clementine, whom he likes. Guillaume and Cinderella dance, falling deeper in love. When Hortensia rips off Cinderella’s mask, it is time for her to flee. In the chaos caused by her sudden departure, she leaves behind one golden shoe. Guillaume vows to marry her.
SCENE 1: IN THE KINGDOM
Benjamin and Guillaume search for Cinderella, trying the shoe on every female foot they can find.
SCENE 2: CINDERELLA’S KITCHEN
Cinderella awakens, and with the help of the Fates, remembers her astonishing night at the palace. Hiding the other golden shoe on the mantelpiece, she resigns herself to her daily chores. Clementine tells Cinderella of the boy she met, and then Edwina turns suspicious when she spies Cinderella dancing steps from the ball. Hortensia viciously attacks Cinderella, and her father must step in. Unannounced, Benjamin and Guillaume arrive, exhausted from trying the shoe on so many feet. When the shoe does not fit either of the stepsisters, Hortensia throws it into the fire. Cinderella comes forward with the matching shoe: Prince Guillaume has found his princess. Cinderella and her prince leave the family behind. All is not lost for Clementine, however, as Benjamin returns to take her with him. And a royal wedding is held.
Cinderella’s “feathered” gold ball gown was actually created by photoshopping feather patterns onto a sheer fabric. “If I would have made the dress with real feathers like on [Crouch’s original] drawing, then you would have been able to wear it once and all those feathers would have been broken,” says Haller. “And now we have this beautiful dress with photographically printed feathers that looks—from a distance, it really looks like real feathers.”
Christopher Wheeldon’s Cinderella* will be part of SF Ballet’s 2020 Season, with performances Jan 21–Feb 2.
Program notes by Cheryl A. Ossola
The heart of the old, the spirit of the new. Christopher Wheeldon’s Cinderella tells the same uplifting story people have heard for centuries, but this is a ballet full of innovations and modern twists. A co-production of San Francisco Ballet and Dutch National Ballet, Cinderella premiered in Amsterdam in 2012, then flew across the Atlantic to make its US premiere in San Francisco in 2013.
“Each of Christopher’s works has something unique,” says Helgi Tomasson, SF Ballet’s artistic director and principal choreographer. Wheeldon is an acclaimed dancemaker, in demand at companies worldwide. Formerly a resident choreographer at New York City Ballet and now an artistic associate at The Royal Ballet, he caused a sensation on Broadway with the musical An American in Paris, for which he won the Tony Award for choreography. And he’s a frequent presence at SF Ballet, with 14 works in the repertory. Cinderella was his eighth commission and first full-length story ballet for the Company.
Tomasson’s words about originality ring true in Wheeldon’s Cinderella. You’ll find no fairy godmother, no pumpkin coach, no clock striking midnight—but you won’t miss them a bit when a tree comes alive and “dances,” 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 Christopher Wheeldon. “What I wanted to do,” the choreographer says, “was echo 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.” That’s where he got 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,” he says. “There are comic moments because there’s comedy written into the music, but it’s a more serious Cinderella in a way.”
That music, written by Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev in 1940 but shelved for several years during World War II, made its first appearance when Bolshoi Ballet premiered Cinderella in November 1945, choreographed by Rostislav Zakharov. “I love it,” says Music Director and Principal Conductor Martin West about the score. “It’s immediately striking, and astonishingly clever 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.”
As a ballet, Cinderella has a lengthy pedigree. It debuted in St. Petersburg in 1893, choreographed by Marius Petipa with Enrico Cecchetti and Lev Ivanov, famous “fathers” of classical ballet. (This was when ballerina Pierina Legnani first whipped out an unheard-of 32 consecutive fouettés—pirouettes in which one leg repeatedly extends and whips in, foot to knee—a feat that is now a standard of virtuosity.) The West had to wait until 1938 to see a Cinderella, and when the chance came it was Michel Fokine’s one-act version in London, which added the role of Cinderella’s cat. In 1948, Sir Frederick Ashton made a Cinderella for Sadler’s Wells Ballet in London, and it was the first English full-length ballet done in the tradition of the 19th-century classics. He based it on the Perrault fairy tale and used the Prokofiev score. Ashton revived an old tradition by casting men—including himself—as the Ugly Sisters. Margot Fonteyn, his choice for Cinderella, was injured during rehearsals, and so it was Moira Shearer of The Red Shoes fame who created the title role.
Ashton’s Cinderella was followed by an onslaught of productions. Among them, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Peter Anastos made Cinderella for American Ballet Theatre in 1984; like Fokine’s, it included Cinderella’s Cat. Baryshnikov had never danced this ballet in Russia; it was the music that enticed him to create his own. Rudolf Nureyev, in his 1986 production for Paris Opera Ballet, set the ballet in Hollywood and gave the beleaguered Cinderella an alcoholic father. And in SF Ballet Choreographer in Residence Yuri Possokhov’s 2006 production for Bolshoi Ballet, the Storyteller (Prokofiev himself) replaces the Fairy Godmother.
Christopher Wheeldon’s Cinderella isn’t the first to find a home at SF Ballet—that honor goes to a production by Lew Christensen and Michael Smuin, then co-artistic directors, in 1973. Wheeldon’s version, with all the technological advantages of the 21st century, began percolating when he and Tomasson discussed ideas for a new full-length ballet to be co-produced with Dutch National Ballet. As Wheeldon soon found, creating a production on two continents simultaneously isn’t easy. “It was my crazy idea,” he says. “I said, ‘I’ll do some of it here and some of it there, and we’ll make it work.’” Several Dutch National Ballet principal dancers rehearsed in San Francisco for a few weeks in 2012, and several from SF Ballet went to Amsterdam; that way the 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.”
Listen to an interview of Cinderella choreographer Christopher Wheeldon at the time of Cinderella‘s premiere in San Francisco in 2013.
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 a shared understanding of what is exciting about the story. [We wanted] to burrow into possibilities we had never seen explored.” These 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 in charge of her destiny. Yes, she’s a servant in her own home, but “she knows she doesn’t have to be there forever,” he 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.” Cinderella gains some of her strength from the 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 she learns form the basis of her solo at the Prince’s ball.
Cinderella’s Prince, too, is more complex than in traditional versions—more than “just a handsome mug,” Wheeldon says. He and Lucas gave the Prince a childhood—and a servant who happens to be his best friend. In a classic mistaken-identity plot device, the Prince masquerades as the 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 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 had designed for theater, opera, and musicals, but ballet was a new world for him. And he discovered that “it needs to be fluid. I think this 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 the 1800s “but spread over the century,” he says. “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 design method as “like a purifying process.” Set designs come before those for costumes, and he starts by collecting images that spark his imagination. “You collect these things and they become the beginning of a conversation, with yourself, but also with the people you’re collaborating with.” The images lead to ideas, which then develop into a design concept.
One of Crouch’s collaborators is award-winning puppeteer Basil Twist, whose primary role with Cinderella˝ was to make the tree be more than 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, and his work spans continents. (His Obie Award–winning Symphonie Fantastique, an underwater puppetry and art extravaganza set to Hector Berlioz’ score, caught Wheeldon’s eye.) But of everything Basil has created, what holds particular meaning for him is the tree in 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.”
The tree’s foliage and movements are enhanced by projections — not in a major way, Couch says, but to “support the atmosphere, like the lighting does.” And lighting is where Natasha Katz comes in. To her, this ballet is “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.” 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 one I would have dreamed about.”
Listen to an interview with Music Director Martin West and pianist Michael McGraw on Prokofiev’s melodic, atmospheric score for Cinderella.
Christopher Wheeldon’s Cinderella* will be part of SF Ballet’s 2020 Season, with performances Jan 21–Feb 2.
By Jennie Scholick, PhD
What is it? A familiar fairy tale with a few charming twists. Created by choreographer Christopher Wheeldon of An American in Paris fame in 2012 to music by Sergei Prokofiev, this ballet leaves behind the fairy godmothers and talking mice in favor of a delightfully human story full of fabulous visual effects. With fantastic sets and costumes by Julian Crouch, magical projections by Daniel Brodie, and breathtaking puppetry designed by MacArthur Foundation Fellow Basil Twist to put a new “twist” on an old tale, Wheeldon updates this timeless tale for modern audiences of every age
In short: A spunky heroine. A noble prince. Blended families of the evil and not-so-evil persuasion. Tiny feet and ill-fitting shoes. And of course stunning dancing to a fabulous score.
Who it’s for: Anyone who loves a charming romance, Broadway musicals, or a great pair of shoes.
What will I see? While the ballet has some similarities to the animated classic, Wheeldon chose elements from both the Charles Perrault fairy-tale (the one the movie pulls from) and the Brothers Grimm, which has a few darker tones. So let’s start at the beginning….
ACT I: CINDERELLA’S HOME AND THE PALACE
The Plot: Fairy tales are notoriously hostile to mothers. Cinderella is no different. Our ballet opens with young Cinderella innocently playing outside when her mother suddenly falls ill and dies. (Don’t worry, it gets happier from there.) With her mother’s death, Cinderella acquires Four Fates, who look after her. When she cries over her mother’s grave, a (magical) tree grows out of her tears. We’ll come back to that.
Choreographer George Balanchine famously said there are no mothers-in-law in ballet—unfortunately for Cinderella, there are plenty of stepmothers (and stepsisters too!). Her father remarries a vile woman named Hortensia, who comes along with two equally (or are they?) vile daughters, Clementine and Edwina. Though our poor Cinderella tries at first to stand up to these mean girls, her father demands she play nice. Cinderella becomes not just nice, but fully subservient to the family.
Meanwhile, back at the palace, young Prince Guillaume and his best friend Benjamin are growing up under the watchful eyes of King Albert and Queen Charlotte. Albert and Charlotte break the (unsurprising) news that Guillaume needs to find a nice princess to marry. Then, to add insult to injury, his father insists he be the one to deliver invitations to the ball at which he’ll pick a bride.
Guillaume does have one trick up his sleeve though: he has Benjamin pretend to be a prince, while he pretends to be a beggar. A quite Homeric way to see what’s what in a household. Cinderella’s stepsisters are terrible; Cinderella is sweet. She and the “beggar” share a dance as they pretend to be at the ball.
Fast forward a few days and worst-stepmother-ever Hortensia casually tosses Cinderella’s invite to the ball in the fire. Hortensia, Edwina, and Clementine go to the ball, leaving Cinderella alone cleaning the kitchen. At this point those fates take charge, bringing Cinderella to the tree (remember the tree?) who acts in place of the more traditional fairy godmother and gets her all set up with dress, invite, carriage, and a few new dance moves.
What should I look for? This first act obviously sets up a huge amount of plot exposition and character development—but while that’s all good and well, the big moment is actually one that’s just about Cinderella herself and her mother’s love: her transformation at the end of the act, helped by her mother’s tree. This moment features outstanding, magical puppetry.
ACT II: THE PALACE BALLROOM
The plot: This is the ball scene, you know what happens! Guillaume sadly wanders around, displeased with all the eligible ladies. Hortense and Edwina make true fools of themselves. And Cinderella makes a grand (masked) entrance all decked in gold, from tiara to toe shoes. Guillaume immediately falls for her and they dances together. Meanwhile, Benjamin is falling for Clementine, who, it turns out, is perhaps not all bad. Hortensia, on the other hand, is just that bad, and she rips Cinderella’s mask off. Cinderella dashes out and leaves a golden slipper behind (it’s hard to dance in glass).
What should I look for? This scene really plays with the corps de ballet, creating stunning kaleidoscopic formations that both stand on their own and highlight the principal dancers. Also, keep an eye out for those stepsisters—their duet in this act is one of the comedic highlights of the ballet.
ACT II: BACK IN CINDERELLA’S KITCHEN
The plot: Guillaume and Benjamin strike out to find the girl who fits the shoe and search high and low before making it to Cinderella’s home. When it doesn’t fit Edwina or Clementine, Hortensia shows her true colors (again) and throws the golden pointe shoe in the fire. Luckily Cinderella is able to produce the matching shoe and she and Guillaume live happily ever after. And, never fear—though Guillaume may have less time for Benjamin now that he’s got a girl, Benjamin makes out pretty well too, sweeping Clementine off her feet and out of her mother’s grasp. What should I look for? While many ballets end with a big wedding, and this one is no exception, it’s a different kind of wedding than is typical: softer, more romantic, less pomp and circumstance. A simple pas de deux for Cinderella and Guillaume under her mother’s tree transforms into a charming outdoor wedding with all our favorites in attendance and the final image of the ballet isn’t an upbeat crowded finale, but just our prince and new princess enjoying a quiet moment, together at last.
Cinderella is our heroine. She’s beautiful, clever, and a little too headstrong for her own good, but it’s her sweet spirit that ultimately charms the prince.
Likes: Trees, golden slippers, a truly clean home.
Dislikes: Ashes, siblings, clocks.
Prince Guillaume is in a pickle: his parents want him to marry and he’s just not emotionally ready. But a prince of the realm must do what a prince of the realm must do. The only answer is to have a ball and invite every possible bachelorette from near and far.
Likes: Drinking with his best friend Ben.
Dislikes: When people call him Wills, Willy, or Bill.
King Albert and Queen Charlotte
The rulers of our imaginary Francophone country, Albert and Charlotte just really wish that Guillaume would grow up and take some responsibility for his life—or at least stop making trouble with the dancing master’s son Benjamin.
Likes: Absolute power.
Dislikes: Peter Pan.
Cinderella’s nerdy younger stepsister, who maybe, just maybe, isn’t all evil.
Likes: Reading, journaling, and hiding from her older sister.
Dislikes: Visits to the optometrist and her family.
Edwina puts the evil in evil stepsister.
Likes: Tormenting those weaker than her.
Dislikes: Anyone having anything that she doesn’t have.
Evil stepmother or just looking out for her biological children’s best interests? Depends on who you ask.
Likes: Edwina. Clementine, on occasion. Having servants.
Dislikes: Financial insecurity. Cinderella.
Poor Cindy’s dad doesn’t seem to have a name—or much of a backbone. Though he loves his child, his love for wife #2 seems to outweigh that from time to time—or for several years.
Likes: Both Cinderella and Hortensia. Presumably Wife #1 as well.
The son of Madame Mansard—the dancing master—Benjamin grows up with Guillaume at the palace. Often left to play second fiddle, he finally gets a chance to find love of his own.
Likes: Squash, polo, ballroom dancing.
Dislikes: Being referred to as “the dancing master’s son”.
Manifestations of Cinderella’s mother’s love, the Fates guide our heroine throughout her life—though, it sure seems like they could have interceded before she became a full-on servant in her own home.
Likes: Cinderella, large trees, graveyards.
The Fairy Godmother
The Fairy Godmother is the one who gets Cindy ready for the ball…not! No fairy godmothers here—the Fates and the giant tree that grows out of Cindy’s mother’s grave take care of all godmother-like duties.
Dislikes: Being excluded from this story.
Cinderella kicks off our 2020 Season, playing at the War Memorial Opera House January 21–February 2.
On the 75th anniversary of that first Nutcracker, the enduring beauty of the snow scene—then and now!
The first production of Willam Christensen’s 1944 Nutcracker was recorded for the Standard Hour television show in 1952 and offers a bird’s-eye perspective on the snow scene of America’s first complete Nutcracker.
And now, we leap ahead to the current day. The beautiful blizzard that takes place in Helgi Tomasson’s current production of Nutcracker was filmed from the wings, capturing both the joy of movement—and a lot of snow!
Thank you for counting down to the 75th anniversary of Nutcracker with us! We’ve given away 75 pairs of tickets to this season’s performances, plus books, and multiple event tickets.
We’ve loved reading about your Nutcracker memories as dancers and audience members, your pre-performance traditions, your favorite holiday drinks, your captions to Nutcracker images, and your retellings of the Nutcracker story in emojis.
Happy holidays from all of us at San Francisco Ballet!