The heart of the old, the spirit of the new. Christopher Wheeldon's Cinderella tells the same uplifting story people have heard for centuries, but this is a ballet full of innovations and modern twists. A co-production of San Francisco Ballet and Dutch National Ballet, Cinderella premiered in Amsterdam in 2012, then flew across the Atlantic to make its US premiere in San Francisco in 2013.

Frances Chung and Joseph Walsh in Wheeldon's Cinderella©. (© Erik Tomasson)

Frances Chung and Joseph Walsh in Wheeldon's Cinderella©.
(© Erik Tomasson)

"Each of Christopher's works has something unique," says Helgi Tomasson, SF Ballet's artistic director and principal choreographer. Wheeldon is an acclaimed dancemaker, in demand at companies worldwide.

Windeldon's Cinderella is all about originality. You'll find no fairy godmother, no pumpkin coach, no clock stricking midnight - but you won't miss them a bit when a tree comes alive and "dances", or when Cinderella shows backbone and her Prince's charm runs deep. And you won't miss them when the dancing and the storytelling comes from Christopher Wheeldon. "What I wanted to do," the choreographer says, "was echo the darkness in the music by taking some of the themes from the Brothers Grimm version rather than the {Charles} Perrault version," with its fairy godmother and pumpkin coach. " The Grimm version is more serious and a bit darker, centered around nature and the spirit of mother." That's where he got the idea of a tree that grows from the grave of Cinderella's mother, "the deliverer of all things magic, which I think is more poetic {than a fairy godmother}and quite beautiful," he says. "There are ocmic moments because there's comedy written into the music, but ti's a more serious Cinderella in a way."

San Francisco Ballet in Wheeldon's Cinderella©. (© Erik Tomasson)

San Francisco Ballet in Wheeldon's Cinderella©.
(© Erik Tomasson)

Music, written by Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev in 1940 but shelved for several years during World War ||, made its first appearance when Bolshoi Ballet premiered Cinderella in November 1945, choreographed by Rostislav Zakharov. "I love it," says Music Director and Principal Conductor Martin West about the score. "It's immediately striking, and astonishingly clever the way the themes come around, the way he could create an atmosphere out of something very simple."

But what's a story without a setting? Wheeldon chose Julian Crouch to do the sets and costumes because of his "very fantastical approach to design. He always seems to embrace the darker side of the fairy tales he's done," he says. "It needs to be fluid. It moves scene to scene more rapidly; it has more locations. So fo rme it's been an exercise in suggestion, really - I've had to suggest a location and spport the atmosphere and then move fluidly to the next one." As for the costumes, he says there's "a looseness about them. Fairly tales are 'once upon a time,' not 'once upon 1870.'" The period is the 180s "but spread over the century," he says. " Each character is allowed to drift a bit in time. I'd say it's timeless; in that sense it has a fluidity as well."

This Cinderella is for adults, not children. Christopher Wheeldon's first narrative ballet for SFB takes not only the fairy out, but just about everything else that a fairy tale entails. It's a bit difficult to follow his narration. Why do those mystic creatures appear at the tree in the cemetery? Why does Cinderella need dancing lessons from the Seasons when she did just fine with the beggar/prince? Why does the more evil of the sisters get away scot-free? The production which include the magically growing tree, the dancing chandeliers and flying chairs are still impressive, spectacular in fact. But what you want to see is choreography that looks fresh and tells its story.

San Francisco Ballet in Wheeldon's Cinderella©. (© Erik Tomasson)

San Francisco Ballet, Program 4: Christopher Wheeldon's "Cinderella," through 2 p.m. March 23. $40-$340. War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., S.F. (415) 865-2000.

Text: Olga Belkina Images courtesy San Francisco Ballet