With his Tony-winning work in “An American in Paris” on Broadway and his expensively produced full-length ballets, choreographer Christopher Wheeldon has redefined dazzle.
He matches a Ziegfeldian appetite for spectacle with a fine eye for beauty, especially in the spin and sweep of his dances. Ballet followers will surely remember the most recent example, “The Winter’s Tale,” performed here in January. Its stunning visual feast included a towering jeweled tree and billowing ocean waves, crafted from silk, that were almost as airy and alive as the dancing.
What Wheeldon offers is a rich imagination. When he comes up with a new production of a familiar ballet, he always puts his own spin on it, not simply re-costuming it but fully rethinking it from a fresh, original point of view. He set his “Swan Lake” in a Degas-era ballet studio, for example, with a Moulin Rouge influence — and it worked. This is why I’m keen to see his “Cinderella,” which the San Francisco Ballet performs at the Kennedy Center Opera House Oct. 26-30.
It promises to be another Wheeldon-y extravaganza. Basil Twist, the consummate puppeteer who created the silk waves in “Winter’s Tale,” collaborated with Wheeldon on this ballet, which premiered in 2012 in Amsterdam. (Wheeldon created it jointly for the Dutch National Ballet and San Francisco Ballet.) Like “Winter’s Tale,” “Cinderella” has a magical tree, which is Basil’s creation; he also devised Cinderella’s carriage and the horses that pull it. The costumes and sets, which include flying chairs, have drawn raves.
And the dancing? For Felipe Diaz, the ballet master who assisted Wheeldon as he created “Cinderella” and who oversees San Francisco Ballet’s rehearsals of the production, what stands out most are the little things. The subtleties of style.
“You can see the influences he’s had,” says Diaz, noting that Wheeldon began his performing career with the Royal Ballet and ended it with New York City Ballet. “You see those two facets in his work. It’s an overall undertone. The intricate footwork, the interesting partnering sequences. It’s a nice mixture of British ballet and New York City Ballet.
“He is very interested in musicalities that he discovered, and that are ones that maybe we wouldn’t think of.”
Diaz had danced in Wheeldon works while he was a member of the Dutch National Ballet. He was a ballet master with that company when Wheeldon began creating “Cinderella” as a co-production with the San Francisco Ballet. So Diaz joined Wheeldon at San Francisco Ballet’s studios, where the choreographer created about half of the ballet. Diaz learned the steps along with the dancers, and took videos and made notes about musicality and spacing. He taught that portion of choreography to the Dutch dancers back in Amsterdam, so they were ready for the rest when Wheeldon arrived there to finish making the ballet.
Co-productions are a bit complicated that way — creating for two companies simultaneously — but the benefit is that the troupes share the costs. Diaz’s back-and-forth connection with the production continued. A month after the Dutch world premiere, he was back in San Francisco, where he started a new job as one of that company’s ballet masters.
Wheeldon uses the traditional Prokofiev score. But his narrative departs a bit from the norm, starting with a prologue that shows what happened to Cinderella’s mother. The stepmother and father have prominent roles, Diaz says. The prince gets more of a backstory, too.
Diaz says he watched in awe as Wheeldon kept cooking up ideas. And cooking, and cooking, and cooking . . .
“It was admirable to see how, even at the end of the longest days of rehearsal, he was very creative,” says Diaz. “Even when everyone else was on their last breath.”
Step Afrika!, a Washington-based company that blends stepping with African and modern dance, presents its 2011 piece, “The Migration,” in an expanded production. The work is based on American painter Jacob Lawrence’s series, “The Migration of the Negro,” which charts the South-North journeys of African Americans in the 1900s. (The series is on display at the Phillips Collection and at MoMA in New York.) Performances feature projected images of Lawrence’s paintings, and singing by members of the Men and Women of the Gospel Choir. Sept. 30-Oct. 2. University of the District of Columbia Theater of the Arts, 4200 Connecticut Ave NW. www.washingtonperformingarts.org
Big lovely? There’s a good chance of it. Big lively — oh, most definitely. In “The Blues Project,” singer/songwriter/guitarist Toshi Reagon and her quintet, BIGLovely, join 2015 MacArthur “Genius Grant” winner Michelle Dorrance and her dancers in a mix of tap and other music. Toshi Reagon is the daughter of Sweet Honey in the Rock’s Bernice Johnson Reagon. Expect big sounds all around. Oct. 5-6. At Kennedy Center, Eisenhower Theater. www.kennedy-center.org
Elizabeth Streb wreaks art out of havoc. And out of danger, fear, slamming, crashing and all sorts of other things we don’t normally associate with dance. Dancers need to be careful with their instruments — their bodies — right? Streb asks her dancers to throw themselves off bridges, to climb down skyscrapers, to knock themselves against walls. Routinely, they’re a split-second short of disaster. You have to see it to believe it — and then you also get to feel the adrenaline rush. In “SEA,” the performers interact with specially designed mechanics and hardware. Audience members can contribute to the interactive soundtrack. Nov 4-5. At Kennedy Center, Eisenhower Theater. kennedy-center.org
Xavier was a hip-hop magazine photographer and musician before he jumped into dance with Philadelphia’s Rennie Harris Puremovement. Now he blends his visual and musical sense with high energy and improvisational bravado. Humility, too: In “Point of Interest,” he explores the challenges of the maturing street dancer. Nov. 10-11. At Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center Dance Theatre, University of Maryland. theclarice.umd.edu
In this immersive dance experience, choreographer Cynthia Word and her dancers examine the many facets of love in our lives. Each room of the historic Josephine Butler mansion, a 1927 Renaissance revival beauty, will be transformed through design and performance into a separate theatrical experience. The complete excursion offers a mix of dance, theater, music, opera, costuming and decor, but audiences can shape the event themselves, freely exploring the various rooms and scenes at their own pace. Nov. 11-13. At Josephine Butler Mansion, 2437 15th Street, NW. worddance.org
This ballet, based on a beloved Russian fairy tale, is madcap comic fare. There’s zesty music by Rodion Shchedrin and plenty of folk dancing along with ballet. Characters include a czar, a young maiden, wild horses, sea people — and Gentlemen of the Bedchamber. Were they in the original children’s story? No matter. They’re part of the work’s coltish charm. Jan. 31-Feb. 5. At Kennedy Center, Opera House. kennedy-center.org
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