San Francisco Ballet
by Becca Hirschman
February 24, 2009 -- San Francisco
San Francisco Ballet is known more for its ultra-cool contemporary works than the evening-length conventional story ballets, but Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson has invested a lot of time and money into a spectacular new full-length marvel that is sure to amaze everyone. While “Swan Lake” has seen multiple incarnations-- including traditional white feathers, a corps de ballet full of beefy men, and techno Swan Lake on ice--- this most recent version tastefully merges the best of the old with the swankiest of the new.
One of the most streamlined additions is the Prologue, which Tomasson has added to give more depth behind why Von Rothbart, the evil sorcerer, kidnapped and transformed Odette into a swan by day and an abducted princess by night. While short, the prologue provides succinct back story, necessary for those new to the story or ballet and appreciated by “Swan Lake” veterans.
On Tuesday, Tina LeBlanc, who retires this May, danced the dual role of Odette/Odile with confidence and emotion. Each step, attitude, and pirouette was so achingly perfect, yet it was her expression that hit a nerve for me. LeBlanc’s focus is never to just dance the choreography; there’s always something more, something grander and intricately divine emoting from within on stage, and this swan princess couldn’t have been anything more beautiful than on Tuesday. Her Odette blended just the right amount of shyness and affection, while Odile tipped the scales, dancing sultry and bold. Especially as Odile, LeBlanc’s fighting personality showed through, checking off 30 lovely fouettés after tearing her ACL less than two years ago.
Joan Boada matched LeBlanc well as her Siegfried (but honestly, I always wondered if Siegfried needed glasses… even in Act III, Damian Smith’s evil Von Rothbart still looked like a greasy crow, even under that gunmetal grey Lagerfeld-inspired coat. Really, Siegfried! Get a clue!). Unfortunately, Tomasson’s choreography for him, especially in the first act, didn’t give me any good reason to root for him. Sure, he’s friends with townspeople of all socio-economic levels, so kudos to him, but his solo at the end of the act left me with a feeling of “so what?” He can whip out some nice jumps, but, really, why should I care about his happiness? But the remainder of the act featured festive dancing, especially in the pas de trois, which featured lovely hops and leaps from Frances Chung. Even the couple behind me was humming as the peasants linked hands and twirled.
Probably one of the most jaw dropping scenes in ballet is Act II of “Swan Lake,” where 30 swans enter, one by one, with their arms stretched, lightly hopping in arabesque. The row of swans continues to get longer, wider, they fan out, and the stage is all of a sudden filled with a sea of feathered friends. SF Ballet’s Act II doesn’t change much of that here, but adds a massive volcanic rock that measures 56 feet long and 14 feet high placed underneath an immense, golden full moon. Combined with wispy fog, cap-like swan headdresses, sparkling and chic tutus, and a strong corps de ballet (including several handfuls of advanced-level students and trainees), it all made for an intensely stunning visual extravaganza. This production was Jonathan Fensom’s first foray into ballet, and the theater-based scenic and costume designer got just about everything right and then some. I especially enjoyed his amber stairway in Act III, which effortlessly descended from the heavens, and throughout the evening, the costumes didn’t look fussy or dowdy, something that many story ballets tend to rely on these days.
This “Swan Lake” has also been brought into the 21st century technology-wise. Sven Ortel’s projection and video design let us move from daytime to fluffy rose-hued clouds to a cloudless night with ease. Not so technically sound, though, were the flying swans that froze for a second mid-wing flap against the back scrim. But that may have been the only noticeable technical glitch in an intricate evening full of delights.
Other standouts of the evening included the petite and fun-to-watch Clara Blanco as both a cygnet and Neapolitan princess, and Frances Chung, Dana Genshaft, Garen Scribner, and Hansuke Yamamoto as the Russian during the ballroom scene. Lily Rogers also had a bang-up evening as a swan maiden and the fiery lead in the Spanish variation. I love any chance to see Damian Smith, especially in character roles. His Von Rothbart was both slimy and depressing, and when he bent over and slowly flapped his arms, swan-style, I almost felt sorry for the crazy dude. In addition, the SF Ballet Orchestra, led by conductor Paul Hoskins, sounded strong and evocatively romantic, yet at times during Acts II and IV, intentionally slower than usual. Perhaps Tomasson has a reason for this, but I can’t understand why he’d want the large corps sections to drag on.
As a whole, though, SF Ballet‘s “Swan Lake” has got a bunch of new without throwing out too much of the old. It’s a story that’s stood the test of ballet time, and this infusion of technical magic and storytelling have added a well-deserved breath of fresh air.