San Francisco Ballet principal dancer Sasha De Sola talks updating ‘Cinderella’ for modern audiences

SF Ballet/Courtesy

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On Jan. 21, the San Francisco Ballet began its current run of Christopher Wheeldon’s “Cinderella,” an adaptation of the classic fairy tale set to the original musical composition by Sergei Prokofiev. This isn’t the first time the company has brought Wheeldon’s production to the Bay Area, however — “Cinderella” made its U.S. debut in San Francisco in 2013 shortly after it made its world premiere in Amsterdam with the Dutch National Ballet in 2012. 

Not only is “Cinderella” returning to San Francisco, principal dancer Sasha De Sola is also returning to the production in a new starring role. In an interview with The Daily Californian, De Sola discussed what it was like making the move from a key supporting role to the titular character of the Bay Area production.

“The last time I danced in this production of ‘Cinderella,’ I was the mean stepsister, Edwina. She’s a very comedic role and it requires quite a lot of spunk,” De Sola said. De Sola worked with Wheeldon to originate the roles of Russian Princess and principal Winter Spirit in 2012; she later went on to play Edwina. The current run of “Cinderella” marks De Sola’s debut in the main role.

“Dancing Cinderella is quite challenging,” De Sola said, characterizing Wheeldon’s choreography as neoclassical — that is, incorporating elements of modernity into its more classical structure. “(This process) was about finding my way to pace myself through the entire ballet, and find the moments that really need extra attention and care,” she continued. 

De Sola noted that the challenges surrounding making the character her own, especially in a run that includes multiple performers as Cinderella, require more than just stamina. It also involved allowing herself to embody the role uniquely and authentically.

“I think one of the biggest challenges when you take on a new character is finding a way to keep the integrity of the character that the choreographer originally intended while still finding yourself in that character,” De Sola said. “I think when you try to mimic other people … unless it comes from within you, it’s not quite as effective.”

The character arc of Cinderella is one that carries throughout the entirety of Wheeldon’s ballet. While the production is unique in that it emphasizes supporting characters, ensembles and scenic design as major parts of the story, the lead character is often the one that remains most memorable in the minds of the audience. After all, the heroine’s story is one that many are familiar with before seeing the show, and it is expected that audiences will view her sympathetically.

Still, De Sola emphasized that the character can often adapt and change depending on the dancer in the role, with each performer bringing a unique perspective. De Sola sought to look past the notion of Cinderella as a character shaped entirely by tragedy, and instead attempted to understand her agency within familial relationships and the magical “Fates” of the story.

“Obviously, we’re all doing the same choreography, the same mime, the same everything,” De Sola said, describing the company dancers’ practical work portraying the lead heroine. “But the spirit of a person can kind of come through in little moments, and I think that that’s what makes it really special.”

From the production’s opening sequence to the final royal ball, the standout moments in the ballet center around Cinderella’s experiences navigating tragedies in her life while venturing out into the magical world around her. For De Sola, there is one particular moment that stands apart that has as much to do with the set’s physical design as it does the choreography and performance.

“I remember when I finally had a chance to watch this ballet from the audience, and the first thing that really struck me was the carriage scene and how magically it comes together,” De Sola said. “The master puppeteer, Basil Twist, the way he constructed that was just incredible.”

Twist’s work as the tree and carriage sequence director played an important role in bringing about the visual effects that constitute the show. The world-building of “Cinderella” is as important as the story itself, and the San Francisco Ballet emphasizes this throughout the production to ensure that audiences have the best possible experience. 

It’s the transportive, escapist experience the company brings that De Sola finds particularly exciting about a show like “Cinderella,” especially because the production is able to adapt its source material for a modern audience. Finding the magic in artistic experiences, even for a little while, is something we can all find value in.

“There is a level of escapism involved in going to the theater and watching something magical that you don’t see every day,” De Sola said. “Take a moment away from your screens, from your work, whatever it is that you’re doing, and get lost in it.”

Contact Anagha Komaragiri at [email protected]. Tweet her at @aaanaghaaa.