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.
What is it? A chance to see San Francisco Ballet in three epic story ballets during the 2020 Season.
Who it’s for: Anyone who loves a good William Shakespeare adaptation (though these are closer to The Globe Theatre than to Baz Lurhmann), 1990s romantic comedies (think: mistaken identities, mean girls, and happily-ever-afters), or had a childhood fascination with Peter and the Wolf.
What Am I Seeing? A familiar fairy tale with a few charming twists. Choreographer Christopher Wheeldon of An American in Paris fame created this delightful ballet in 2012 on the Dutch National Ballet and San Francisco Ballet. But don’t expect fairy godmothers and talking mice: this production uses fantastic sets and costumes by Julian Crouch, magical projections by Daniel Brodie, and breathtaking puppetry by MacArthur Foundation Fellow Basil Twist to put a new “twist” on an old tale, updating this story for a modern audience.
What Am I Hearing? Sergei Prokofiev’s Cinderella, op. 87. Prokofiev started work on this ballet in 1940, but WWII interrupted his work. Finished in the Ural Mountains in 1944 (in the company of a group of Kirov dancers who had been evacuated from Leningrad), this ballet is structured like a traditional classical ballet and contains themes for each of the main characters.
What Should I Look For? Although technically the story of Cinderella and her Prince, this ballet is chock-full of secondary characters worth a second look. Particularly keep an eye out for the tree, which in this version replaces the fairy godmother, and for Cinderella’s “evil” stepsister Clementine and the Prince’s BFF Benjamin.
What Am I Seeing? A Shakespearean favorite making its triumphant return to San Francisco after a 35-year absence. This 1962 work by George Balanchine was his first original full-length ballet and was quickly hailed as a masterpiece. Balanchine loved the original play—he could recite large parts of it in Russian—so the ballet sticks close to its inspiration, telling the story of four lost lovers in the woods, as well as of a royal fairy court made up of Queen Titania, King Oberon, and mischievous Puck. The narrative lends itself to a wealth of principal and soloist parts and gives ample opportunities for dancers to take on featured roles.
What Am I Hearing? Felix Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, interspersed with several of his other works. The overture was written when Mendelssohn was just 17, but the rest was composed 16 years later. The most famous part of the score is probably the Wedding March, which has had a life of its own ever since Princess Victoria used it for her 1858 wedding. But the score is full of delights beyond this familiar tune. In particular, it contains several vocal numbers, so audiences will get to hear live singers in the Opera House—always a treat!
What Should I Look For? Beyond the mischief caused by the fairies (and do note Balanchine’s comedic timing), this ballet is really about love. But even once everyone is appropriately paired off, none of these characters seem to have the perfect relationship. That’s left for two unnamed characters who appear in the second act’s “Divertissement” pas de deux. In this pas de deux—one of Balanchine’s most beautiful—you see a meditation on what perfect, pure, divine love might look like, something seemingly out of reach even for these fairytale creatures.
What Am I Seeing? A heartbreaking tale of young love and loss set to one of ballet’s favorite scores. Helgi Tomasson’s Romeo & Juliet, choreographed in 1994, is one of San Francisco Ballet’s greatest showpieces. This classic adaptation of the familiar story—two households, both alike, fair Verona etc—routinely brings the audience to tears.
What am I hearing? Sergei Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, op. 64. Written in 1935, this is truly one of the most celebrated scores in all of the ballet repertory. But that wasn’t always the case. Prokofiev wrote this as his first piece upon his return to the Soviet Union, and he soon learned just how hazardous that decision could be. It wasn’t actually performed until 1940 and by that point is was heavily altered (read: censored). The biggest change? Prokofiev’s original happy ending for the young lovers was replaced by the more traditional tragic finale. You can read more about this score’s convoluted history in this New York Timesarticle from 2018.
What should I look for? Tomasson worked closely with fight director Marty Pistone to create all the fight scenes in this ballet. Look for how intense these scenes are and how carefully choreographed. The more chaotic they seem, the more precise they really are.
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!
She’s got a pesky younger brother, she’s brave in a battle, and she’s awe-struck by the Sugarplum Fairy. And yet beyond these universal characteristics, the character of Clara has changed and evolved several times over the 75 years since San Francisco Ballet performed America’s first complete Nutcracker in 1944.
The first Clara in Willam Christensen’s 1944 production of Nutcracker was Lois Treadwell, an adult who was a soloist with San Francisco Ballet. She danced on pointe as Clara and performed in the Mirliton variation in Act 2.
Lew Christensen’s Nutcracker premiered in 1954. In this version, Clara was danced by a child. The opening night Clara in the new production was Suki Schorer, who went on to have a long career at New York City Ballet. She has been an esteemed member of the faculty of School of American Ballet for more than 50 years.
Lew Christensen created a third Nutcracker in 1967. In 1985, student Angela Clark was the first African-American Clara at San Francisco Ballet. “At first, I was a little frightened because I didn’t know how people would accept it,” the then 15-year-old told the San Francisco Chronicle. “I was afraid there would be a lot of talk. But now I’m used to the role and find it a worthwhile experience. It’s a great feeling to know you are the first. You feel you have to do your best.”
San Francisco Ballet’s next new Nutcracker production premiered in 1986. Kate Lydon, one of the Claras from this production, went on to dance with SF Ballet and American Ballet Theatre, and to direct the ABT Studio Company.
Helgi Tomasson premiered a fifth Nutcracker in 2004. At the current time, there are two former Claras who are dancers with San Francisco Ballet: Soloist Elizabeth Powell and Corps de Ballet member Natasha Sheehan.
“Costumes have to tell you in a moment what that person is feeling, what they’re going through—what changes are happening,” said Costume Designer Martin Pakledinaz, when accepting a Tony Award for his designs for Broadway’s Thoroughly Modern Millie. Pakledinaz designed the costumes for Helgi Tomasson’s Nutcracker in 2004, and added beautiful detail to each garment. Why trouble with something that may never get noticed? Even if the audience can’t see the details, the costumes help a new set of dancers get into character each year. Below are close-up details from Nutcracker costumes, followed by dancers wearing them onstage.
Magical is how Tomasson describes his vision for this new Nutcracker, an idea he took into planning sessions with set designer Michael Yeargan, and costume and lighting designers Martin Pakledinaz and James Ingalls. “I wanted a production that not only transports children, but also adults into a realm of the magical and the fantastical,” he says.
Tomasson decided that the best place to set his production was early 20th-century San Francisco. Not only would that make the production unique, but it would also be a tribute to the city. “The first American production of Nutcracker was staged by San Francisco Ballet in 1944 so it seemed fitting to place it here,” the choreographer says.
From the beginning of the planning process, when Helgi Tomasson chose a creative team of set, costume, and lighting designers, he knew that he wanted this production to be one that San Francisco audiences would identify with. “Placing the production in Germany no longer worked for me,” he says. “For this city, the people who live in San Francisco, there is no identification with mid-nineteenth century Germany. That’s an old European idea.”
Tomasson and his creative team had strong ideas about the first act of Nutcracker. Conducting historical research on San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake, Yeargan was able to recreate a street scene approaching the Stahlbaums’ house, “with wonderful Victorian steps leading up to the front door, wreaths and candles in the windows,” he says.
Even the Stahlbaums’ stylized drawing room with its Victorian staircase and huge bay window in the back was based on photographs and books published during the time period.
With new choreography and scenery, 172 costumes, a cast of more than 73 company members and 91 School students, this Nutcracker is the largest production that San Francisco Ballet has ever undertaken.
Tomasson’s other source of inspiration for his Nutcracker was the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition, which celebrated the opening of the Panama Canal, and San Francisco’s re-emergence post-earthquake. The pavilions at the Exposition, full of exotic exhibits and people from all over the world and the international dances of Act II connected for Tomasson.
For Tomasson, the idea of a Clara transported to “Sugarland” as he calls past productions of Act II, never worked for him. “No one seems to know where Sugarland is,” he says, laughing. “Why can’t Clara imagine that her fantasy is taking place in her own city in one of those incredible pavilions?
“Looking at photographs of the Exposition, it must have been incredible,” says Tomasson. “I thought, ‘Why not use the concept of the beautiful international pavilions—in a loose way, of course—to suggest the time period in Act II?’”
One of the last issues that Tomasson tackled was the ending of Nutcracker. In the Company’s past productions, the ballet ends with Clara and the Nutcracker Prince flying away in a golden swan boat. In this new production, Tomasson felt strongly about creating a greater sense of resolution—having the ballet return to the Stahlbaum’s home, where the audience discovers Clara just awakened in the drawing room, and it’s Christmas morning.
Lew Christensen was working on yet another production of Nutcracker at the time of his death in 1984, and had already chosen Jose Varona as his designer. Helgi Tomasson, who was named artistic director in 1985, went ahead with Christensen’s plans, unveiling the company’s fourth production of Nutcracker in 1986.
Varona set the first act in Germany in the 1830s, the Biedermeier period. Beginning with the prologue, which looked like a vintage postcard, the designs established a strong sense of time and place. The tree was grander, and the 170 gorgeous costumes were filled with intricate details that added texture to the production. The Kingdom of Sweets was truly a child’s fantasy land.
The production featured much of Lew Christensen’s choreography, but there were also contributions from Willam Christensen and Helgi Tomasson. “There are little changes all through the production,” says Tomasson. “One big change is that Willam used his own party scene in the first act.” It was expanded to include more children; in fact, the population of the whole ballet grew considerably.
Tomasson added some lovely touches throughout the production, and completely redid a few of the second act variations. “Lew did not want a dragon in the Chinese dance any more,” Tomasson said. “So I had to come up with something else and rechoreograph.”
The Ribbon Dance was replaced by the traditional Trepak, choreographed by Anatole Vilzak, who taught at San Francisco Ballet School for many years and performed with the Mariinsky Theater. “I spoke to Gisella [Christensen] about the changes,” says Tomasson. “She said, ‘Lew wanted changes. Now it’s up to you to make them work.’”
When he staged a new Nutcracker in 1967, Lew Christensen retained much of his choreography from the 1954 production. Robert O’Hearn designed the sets and costumes, which were more realistic, elegant, and opulent than the two previous productions. Many of the 250 silk, satin, and velvet costumes had jewels, and the tree sparkled with twinkling lights as it grew.
The design that inspired the most lavish praise was the stunning snow scene, which O’Hearn described as “in the style of a nineteenth century engraving.” As snow began to fall, two transparent scrims, painted with snow-covered trees, moved across the stage in opposite directions. Clara and the Nutcracker entered and wandered behind the scrims, which moved off to reveal a winter wonderland of forest.
This production opened with a new prologue. The battle between the mice and toy soldiers was more impressively staged, and some of the divertissement were again revamped.
The Spanish Dance was now performed by three couples. Chinese Tea became a romp between a man and a dancing paper dragon.
Four Dresden dolls replaced a shepherdess and her two lambs in the Mirliton dance.
More dancers were added to the Waltz of the Flowers. And for the first time, Clara and the Prince flew out of the Candy Kingdom.