Christopher Wheeldon

San Francisco Ballet, “Cinderella” Jan. 25th 2020

 

I took my brother and soon-to-be 8-year-old daughter to see SF Ballet perform Christopher Wheeldon’s Cinderella (2012/2013). Choreographed for SF Ballet and the National Dutch ballet, Wheeldon’s Cinderella is a more recent version that shifts the familiar Disney storyline, includes some different characters (and characterizations), and displays sublime lighting. As Steve Winn remarks in his review for the San Francisco Chronicle the combined efforts of Julian Crouch (sets and costumes), Natacha Katz (lighting), Basil Twist (puppeteer), and Daniel Brodie (production designer) “merge in a series of museum-quality stage pictures.” Wheeldon’s choreography is fresh and well suited for Prokofiev’s score. Craig Lucas’ libretto digs back into the Brothers Grimm darker tale to rewrite Cinderella as “being more in charge of her own destiny” (according to SFBallet program notes). On Saturday, Misa Kuranaga danced with a supple strength that embodied a woman that has not given up on worldly kindness nor future possibilities. Writing for Utah Arts Review, Kate Mattingly’s review of Ballet West’s “refreshed” Giselle suggests that there is room for growth and change within classical works and Wheeldon’s version of Cinderella is another example.

Until Act II I was all in, convinced that this was a Cinderella story I could get behind. As I often do, I did not read the program prior to the performance so I was not too surprised to see three princesses and their attendants representing the countries of Russia, Spain, and Bali. I get that Prince Guillaume’s parents want to marry him off and expect that princesses from other countries are likely to be involved. I’m baffled, however, as to why Wheeldon chose to make these princesses characterizations; their costumes, movements, and inflections remind me of cringe-worthy moments of the many Chinese or Arbarian variations I’ve seen in The Nutcracker. Just check out minute .43 in SF Ballet’s trailer for Cinderella. Ballet can and should do better with not only re-thinking Disney storylines but also unthinking the cultural appropriations embedded within ballet’s history. If the Balanchine Trust can allow alterations to its Chinese variation in its Nutcracker, then I would like to think that contemporary choreographers can do the same, and should.

April 14th, “Program 6″

San Francisco Ballet, choreography by Helgi Tomasson, Alexi Ratmansky, and Christopher Wheeldon

Again

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This is the most I’ve seen of a San Francisco Ballet season since moving here in 2007 – 4 so far and 1 left to go.  Again, a mixed repertory program, and again odd programming.  These three pieces (Prisim, Seven Sonatas, and Rush) were very similar, almost too similar.  The program notes highlighted their differences in choreographic approaches, musical choices, and moods, but these differences didn’t provide enough differentiation between the three dances (for me).  Yes, I had a favorite, but it doesn’t really matter as I am not inspired to write about either of these dances.  Yes, there was good dancing, but there usually is good dancing with the San Francisco Ballet. I don’t mind spending time in the beauty of a dance.  I do mind, however, when that is all there is again, and again.  What is there to write or think about?

After I saw Program 2 in February, (Rubies (Balanchine), Drink to me with Thine Eyes (Morris), and Fearless Creatures (Scarlett), I wrote it was a pleasant surprise, but that I wanted more fearless.  

I am still waiting.

 

April 7th, “Program 7”

San Francisco Ballet, choreography by Christopher Wheeldon, Justin Peck, and George Balanchine

Watching Dance with Dad

Some of my earliest memories of watching dance are with my Dad.  The most vivid was seeing Pilobolus Dance Theater when I was about 13 or 14.  At the time, it was the “newest” kind of dance I had ever experienced.  The dancers slid across a wet stage for their curtain call; they were mostly naked.  It was odd, and I loved it.  As a ballet dancer in training, I didn’t know dance could be so big and different.

So when my Dad came to visit in April and mentioned that he really wanted to see the ballet, we ended up at the San Francisco Opera House for Program 7.  My Dad is an artist – although he might not call himself that – so he sees movement differently and notices relationships between moods, colors, and music that I might tend to ignore while watching dance.  It was fun to notice how my perspectives on the 3 dances moved the more my Dad and I talked about the pieces we saw.

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My Dad really liked Christopher Wheeldon’s Continuum – there was something there to relate to.  Maybe it was the clean stage and lighting or the way the choreography embodied the music.  There was an ease to the dancing that made its abstractness relatable, the “art” in the dance.  In the program notes, Wheeldon states that “audience’s shouldn’t just be entertained.  They should be challenged.”  While I can’t say for sure whether or not I was challenged by Continuum.  I did enjoy watching it with my Dad; he didn’t shy away from bursts of happy.

People are talking about Justin Peck’s, In the Countenance of Kings.  Even Vanity Fair has something to say or rather ask: “Is Justin Peck Making Ballet Cool Again?”  I’m not sure how I would answer this question, but it seems to imply that there is something “uncool” about ballet or maybe that ballet is, as Jennifer Homans claimed in her 2010 book Apollo’s Angels, dying.  Does Peck’s  growing popularity serve as a refutation this claim?   

Underneath the question posed by Vanity Fair is a fear – or the perception of a fear – that ballet is becoming irrelevant or less relatable to our present moment, which begs the question: Is In the Countenance of Kings relevant?  How does it matter?

In the program notes Peck states, “it’s not a narrative, but it’s like a semi-story.”  There is a protagonist, foil, and hero.  The corps de ballet is “the school of thought” and there are three others, Quantus, Electress, Botanica.  I’m not sure the names of the “semi-story” matter, but should they?  In the Countenance of Kings is a “semi-story” of a present moment that is “cinematic” with “freeze-frame kodak moments.”  There is a relatable surface here, but it is just that, a surface that is just skimming the possible and ways of perceiving the possible.  I want Peck to be more than “be cool,” and I want this dance to matter more because I truly like how Peck cuts the stage with his choreography.  For the record, my Dad only liked the second ½ of this dance.

Last on the program was Balanchine’s Theme and Variations.  My Dad really liked this piece – the tutus, the symmetry, the classical lines – I wasn’t surprised.  The woman sitting next me asked her partner if they could leave: “Oh god, not Theme and Variations.”  This begs the question: is Theme and Variations relevant? How does it matter?  For me, it was enough that my Dad enjoyed the dance – it mattered enough at the moment.   

Thanks Dad.