Practical Magic: San Francisco Ballet's Beyond-Charming Cinderella

Last year, I saw choreographer Christopher Wheeldon's splendid Cinderella, with its equally splendid dancing, sets, costumes, and theatrical magic, as performed by San Francisco Ballet. Why am I telling you this? Cinderella returns this season, in just two weeks, and I, for one, can't wait to see it again.

Wheeldon's Cinderella is danced to the same Prokofiev score as the original Bolshoi Cinderella, first performed in 1945. (The very first Cinderella premiered in St. Petersburg in 1893, to music written by the far lesser known Baron B. Fitinghof-Schell, and no, I did not make up that name.) The early versions, like the Disney animated film, are based on a version of the fairy tale by Frenchman Charles Perrault; that's where we get the fairy godmother and the pumpkin coach, for instance.

The new Cinderella harkens back to the darker Brothers Grimm version, which, Wheeldon says, is "centered around nature and the spirit of the mother," watching over her daughter. One of the things I liked is that we see the mother, in a kind of prologue, in a park with her loving husband and child, before she dies. (Indeed, her shattering death helps explain the father's ineptitude in dealing with his new wife's treatment of his daughter.) At her grave, Cinderella's tears cause a bountiful, green-leaved tree to grow - -one of the ballet's most magical effects -- and it becomes a center of action itself. Instead of a fairy godmother's wand, it is the spirits of spring, summer, fall, and winter, encountered at the tree with their cohorts, who transform Cinderella, teaching her how to dance at the prince's ball as well as dressing her and transporting her there, in another magical moment.

Probably because the librettist and the set and costume designer have Broadway credentials, the ballet was reimagined in a wonderfully show-y way. Craig Lucas wrote Prelude to a Kiss and the libretto for The Light in the Piazza, among other plays; Julian Crouch has designed sets and costumes for operas (Dr. Atomic, The Magic Flute) and musicals (The Addams Family, Big Fish). And I hope more ballet choreographers enlist San Francisco-born puppeteer Basil Twist, who created that fluid and beautiful tree, as well as the oversize puppet heads on the more fantastical characters.

The ball scene is a prime example of clever reimagining. Here, under more than a dozen glowing chandeliers, Cinderella's stepmother quickly gets drunk, and her father spends most of the ball trying to keep her from embarrassing herself. As Cindi dances with her prince, the older couple continues to interact in a corner, their work a marvel of physical expression as he works at keeping her upright. The stepsisters, too, are less cruel, more clumsily competitive with each other, and hilarious.

I just have to mention the slipper-trying-on scene, in which we see most of the "real" and fantastic characters encountered earlier, in a line of chairs that moves into Cinderella's house one by one; later, once Cindi and the prince find each other again, all those chairs arc above the room like a rainbow. And I can still envision the final scene, with all those chandelier lights gleaming through the leaves of the tree.

Since I couldn't help raving on about the concept and the visuals, can we just agree that the dancers performed wonderfully, as always? Here, that would include the three ballet students who danced Young Cinderella, Young Prince, and his best buddy (who, in another nice touch, later hooks up with one of the stepsisters). Last time I blogged about SF Ballet, I mentioned the depth of talent. Clearly, that extends to the San Francisco Ballet School, whose season-ending student showcase is not exactly your typical kids' end-of-year recital.

March 11-23, Cinderella, San Francisco Ballet, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., S.F.; May 28-30, SF Ballet School Student Showcase, 415.865.2000;