Before ballet stages everywhere become crowded with nutcrackers and their gala holiday accouterments, there is still time for other sturdy folk tales of enchantment set to Russian music and popular with children with which to spin off imaginative ballets.
“Cinderella” is such a tale that has survived centuries, cultural variations, a dominating Disney version and lately and a feminist commentary that maybe a heroine shouldn’t wait for either shining princes, fairy godmothers or perfect shoes to achieve all their dreams.
There is no fairy godmother in Christopher Wheeldon’s fanciful take on the tale, being given a splendid handling by the San Francisco Ballet at the Kennedy Center.
Rather, the petite and striking Cinderella is aided by a set of masked fates who hang on the edges and occasionally help lift her airborne at key points.
There are no cutesy dress-making birds or singing mice, as there were in the cartoon version, but there is at least one odd human-sized bird head in the mix, simply to add to the strange wonder of this world.
A mean stepmother, annoying stepsisters and lost footwear provide sufficient familiarity for the youngest to follow along. But “Cinderella” is all about the ball, so the work’s main, dazzling dance showcase occurs there.
Beautiful solos, a heartstopping pas de deux or two cement the young love between the prince and the mysterious woman who was formerly treated no better than a domestic slave. But there are also character-defining dances from the prince’s sly best friend, the step sisters whose dances must incorporate a certain haughty lack of grace but also some humanity, a stepmother who drinks too much at the party and a huge and elegant crowd at the party.
Wheeldon’s version takes the story a few steps early, when a young Cinderella sees her mother die and she must mourn by her grave, her tears watering a tree that continues to grow, flourish and change colors through the production (these are due a production’s puppeteer Basil Twist, who aids the magic in the most subtle ways).
Cinderella’s initial rebuke of her father’s new wife and family adds to her tough domestic role. But it is empowering herself to attend the prince’s ball, in a breathless coach with wheels and a flourish but minus the pumpkin (again thanks to Twist).
Aside from the splendors of the ballroom, the third act’s search for the perfect foot is also delight, beginning with a long line of potential shoe-fitters (including that weird bird) and then their chairs flying into an arc in the sky while the Cinderella home finds the final fitting (after real tries on the stepsister that involve a self-inflicted sledgehammer).
Their reunion — and union — call for a ceremony beneath the full blooming of the tree that ends the tale with fairy tale flourish.
In the opening night performance Maria Kochetkova was precise and fluid, hard to miss in her work clothes or gilded ballroom dress. Joseph Walsh was full of spirit and charm as prince, and Taras Domitro exuberant as his prankster pal, with whom they switch places. Sarah Van Patten brings broad humor to her role of stepmother, and Sasha De Sola and Ellen Rose Hummel surprises as the stepsisters who break out of the characters’ usual stereotypes.
The brief dances by imported princesses from Russia (Jennifer Stahl), Spain (Kimberly Marie Oliver) and Bali (WanTing Zhao) add extra flavor and spice to the ballroom’s procession.
It’s a large and accomplished troupe that brings the work to life with the beautiful sets and costumes by Julian Crouch. Conductor and music director Martin West brings the best out of the orchestra, fueling the brisk action on stage.
It’s the kind of timeless treat to make one forget, for a moment, the impending seasonal march.