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 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.