Ballet co-productions are becoming more common in these straitened times, and Christopher Wheeldon’s new Cinderella, created by two major companies, Dutch National Ballet and San Francisco Ballet, takes that collaborative spirit further than ever. Drawing on the style and resources of both troupes, its world premiere in Amsterdam (ahead of a US premiere in the spring) brought what may well be the most dramatically convincing Cinderella in ballet, a triumph of storytelling and stage design firmly in touch with the 21st century.
It is no small feat. The structure of Prokofiev’s score is riddled with choreographer pitfalls: overly long sections for the evil stepmother and stepsisters, little opportunity for character development, a cardboard Prince who appears only to fall in love with the prettiest girl at the ball. Wheeldon’s Act One solves those issues with insolent ease, moving between added scenes that build up to the main plot. We see Cinderella losing her mother as a little girl and learning to compromise when her stepfamily enters the scene; we are introduced to the Prince and a new character, his best friend, as rebellious boys at the palace.
And as in Rossini’s La Cenerentola¸ the Prince trades places with his friend to deliver ball invitations to Cinderella’s home. Posing as a beggar, he comforts the heroine when she is left behind by sweetly showing her how to dance; as she hops on his feet like a giddy teenager we can see the budding of believable love, the ingredient missing from most balletic Cinderellas.
As with Wheeldon’s recent Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland for the Royal Ballet, Cinderella’s merits are often more theatrical than choreographic. Meaning and character are layered on top of the steps rather than carved within them, and the ball scene and grand pas de deux for Cinderella and her Prince fail to get under Prokofiev’s skin. The dancers run with Wheeldon’s efficient, fast sequences, however, and the production is irresistible in its handling of the narrative. The evil stepsisters are surprisingly tolerable, Maia Makhateli makes a delightfully fleet and natural Cinderella in the second cast, and the matinée she led featured a dancer to watch: Isaac Hernández, who announced his potential as the Prince’s friend with bright clarity.
This Cinderella also owes much to its dazzling master of ceremonies, British designer Julian Crouch: witty craftsmanship, flying chairs, caricatures of royal portraits and imposing masks are all part of his arsenal. Crouch also reprises an image present in the Grimm brothers’ version of the tale: as Cinderella mourns, a tree springs up from her mother’s grave and grows with her, its foliage brought to shimmering life by projections. Cinderella disappears into it to be transformed into a belle of the ball.
One caveat: the substitution of four ninja-like “Fates” for the Fairy Godmother undermines the independent spirit the production allows the heroine elsewhere. But this Cinderella is modern ballet theatre at its most winningly charming, and could open the way for international collaborations on new, less familiar story ballets.