San Francisco Ballet’s ‘Cinderella’ brings vivid magic to classic fairy tale

Illustration of dancers
Lily Callender /Staff

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From its initial moments, the San Francisco Ballet’s production of Christopher Wheeldon’s “Cinderella” seems poised to transport its audience to the beloved fairy-tale world that has inspired the story of its titular heroine for centuries. Although it may catch fans of the 1950 Disney animated film of the same name by surprise — the plot of the ballet doesn’t hinge on a pumpkin carriage and fairy godmother — audiences of all ages will still come away with a magical experience. Complete with stunning visual set pieces, a creative spin on the old classic tale and an ensemble of supremely talented dancers, San Francisco Ballet’s “Cinderella” is a true delight.

Set to the original composition by Sergei Prokofiev, Wheeldon’s “Cinderella” originally premiered in Amsterdam in 2012, after which it made its premiere in San Francisco in 2013. While this may not be the first time the company is bringing this production and its choreography to the stage, the show feels just as original and contemporary as ever. 

The story, of course, is largely the same. Act I sees a young Cinderella facing the cruelty of her evil stepmothers and stepsisters following the untimely death of her mother, as well as the royal family’s search for a suitable bride for their son, Prince Guillaume. In Act II, Cinderella is magically transported to the royal ball, during which she and Prince Guillaume waltz and fall in love, only for her to be caught by her stepmother and forced to flee, leaving a single golden shoe. And, of course, Act III sees the heroine reunite with the prince after his long search for the mysterious girl at the ball. While the tale itself is tried-and-true, the ballet cleverly and creatively entertains while subverting its audience’s expectations. Rather than originating from an external mystical source, the magic in “Cinderella” comes from within the main character herself, making her someone who the audience can more easily relate to and root for.

Wheeldon’s choreography allows the dancers to create a sense of depth in each of their characters. Even without any dialogue, each dancer is able to embody their characters’ distinct mannerisms. Prince Guillaume, for example, has a swift set of movements that creates a sense of adventurism, along with a quick-wittedness and charm. Stepsisters Edwina and Clementine exaggerate their clumsiness and competitiveness, imbuing the production with plenty of physical comedy throughout. The specificity of the characters’ movements is consistently balanced with the believability and elegance in ensemble pieces; it seems as if all dancers are given a moment to shine, even if they are not one of the main characters.

But as with many of San Francisco Ballet’s productions, the skill of the dancers and the intricacies of the choreography are greatly bolstered by the mesmerizing costume design and visual effects. Julian Crouch, who serves as the scenic and costume designer for the production, brings variety and vibrance to every scene in “Cinderella.” Notably, the distinct costumes for all of the princesses, courtiers and gnomes effectively supplement the choreography to clearly indicate the story’s progression, adding a touch of humor in between numbers showcasing the main characters. 

The visual excellence of “Cinderella” doesn’t end there. Lighting designer Natasha Katz expertly captures the changing mood between acts and scenes, balancing moments of tragedy and darkness with romance and hope. Daniel Brodie’s projection design creates a sense of otherworldliness, working through and in addition to the physical scenery to indicate changes in time and space. Scenes involving a large wall of royal ancestors, Cinderella’s transformation by the mystical “Fates” and of course, the royal ball, are especially mesmerizing.

San Francisco Ballet’s “Cinderella” isn’t merely an effective portrayal of a fairy tale, but a truly creative, updated adaptation that utilizes visual elegance and character-driven choreography to reach its audience. Fans of the story and fans of the ballet alike can rejoice over this modern interpretation of a classic — but rest assured, anyone can enjoy this transportive, vibrant showcase of talent.  

San Francisco Ballet’s “Cinderella” will be showing through Feb. 2 at the War Memorial Opera House.

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