At San Francisco Ballet this spring, two very different productions ask the same question: What's love got to do with it?
Frankly, it’s not only been a long winter here in San Francisco, but a decidedly cold and wet one as well. But while many of us have been making do with cranky radiator-based heating systems or buying galoshes instead of playing tennis, the SF Ballet has been in the studio tuning up their glorious in-house machinery to prepare for stagings of Cinderella and Romeo & Juliet.
The two ballets are both romances that feature big ballroom scenes, which ultimately (as these things often tend to do) lead to very dramatic (if very different) outcomes.
Cinderella choreographer Christopher Wheeldon—who would go on to win two Tony awards for An American in Paris and MJ: The Musical—favors big ideas, threaded with lots of style and layered with mesmerizing visual effects. So, if when sitting in your seats you think to yourself, “This is a Broadway show,” you would not be far off the mark.
Of course, the story of a young girl forced into servitude by her wicked stepsisters and a less-than-empathetic stepmother has been told thousands of times and exists in folk tales across the globe. In China, it is known as Yeh-Shen; inAfrica, it goes by Nyasha, and in England it started out as Tattercoats—a title that doesn’t sound too far removed from Dolly Parton’s Coat of Many Colors when you think about it. Even the Algonquin Indians of North America had their version, Chinye.
What they all share in common is a young girl—often but not always an orphan—oppressed within the confines of her family who is so kind and so good that the fates, as cynical as they might be, decide that the time is ripe for some magical intervention. And that is to help our young heroine rise above her circumstances and, in this case, navigate an often dodgy and complicated royal court, all set up by arriving in a super stylish ride and making an entrance wearing a pair of ultimate custom shoes.
With genius puppeteer Basil Twist conjuring his vaunted brand of stagecraft sorcery, including a tree that would rival any Transformer, along with a wicked stepmother who drinks too much and pays the price the next morning with an epic hangover, this Cinderella is a campy and comic romp filled with the kind of wit and dashing dance the company is known for the world over.
(Courtesy of San Francisco Ballet)
Romeo & Juliet, on the other hand, stands at the opposite end of the spectrum and is all about the drama. Sweeping choreography? Check. Bravura dance moves? You bet. Will there be sword fighting? We say, brace thy self.
Star-crossed lovers have a tough time in this world, and these two are no exception. Even in a long-ago age without selfies and social media, being young was no easy task. Add in some feuding family dynamics and Billy Shakespeare’s propensity for setting up a fever-fueled love conflict to drive the action and you have Romeo & Juliet.
While not exactly an “armchair traveler situation,” the set and design are such that you are to be excused if at some point you find yourself transported to Italy. This by a ballet that was originally conceived in the Soviet Union in 1935 before running into trouble with the authorities who were not keen on the switch-up to a happy ending, so it did not actually make its debut until 1940 with the original narrative conclusion restored. This was a time when the Soviet Union was having a bit of an introspective arts moment, meaning their brand of Socialism was very intent on clearing the cultural decks of the “degenerate modernists” in their midst. Joseph Stalin says nyet to happy endings!
Helgi Tommason, the Icelandic choreographer who for years led the San Francisco Ballet as artistic director until his retirement in 2022, first put together this production of Romeo & Juliet in 1994. It was, in some ways, the role that got away. Meaning he coveted it, but why? Was it because of the dramatic possibilities of being a lead in a story that Shakespeare scholar Harold Bloom deemed being about “a mutual love so uncompromising that it perishes due to its sheer idealism and intensity?” Or was it as Tommason himself has hinted, simply because he has always been an incurable romantic?
Either way, spring is on the move and the San Francisco Ballet is here for it.
// San Francisco Ballet Presents Cinderella March 31st through April 8th and Romeo & Juliet April 21-30; tickets at sfballet.org.