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San Francisco Ballet

'Swan Lake'

by Heather Desaulniers

Sunday, February 22, 2009 -- War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco

“Swan Lake” rarely disappoints.  Yes, some dancers are better than others in the main roles, but in the end, it is still “Swan Lake.”  It’s hard to go wrong with this classical staple, but it’s also hard to update a piece that is so deeply entrenched in ballet history. The recently premiered full-length “Swan Lake” for the San Francisco Ballet is a must-see; the best balancing of old and new in a long time. Tomasson managed to be imaginative and challenging while still remaining mindful of the story’s ancestry and integrity.  There was no change for the sake of change; he successfully blended tradition and innovation, the result being a truly revolutionized and reinvented “Swan Lake.”

One of the much-discussed aspects prior to Saturday’s premiere was Tomasson’s inclusion of a prologue.  The scene details how ‘Odette the woman’ is transformed into ‘Odette the swan’ through her doomed encounter with the evil Von Rothbart.  This very brief addition was not only extremely original but also incredibly effective.  It is a far-fetched notion that a woman be turned into a swan; however, showing it in the beginning of the ballet made the whole idea more plausible.  The prologue also allowed the audience to really see and identify ‘Odette the woman,’ which makes the subsequent love story between her and Prince Siegfried also more convincing.  All other versions (without this opening) force the audience to simply believe that she was once human and has since been morphed into a bird.  Here, we learn that no matter how trite, ‘seeing is believing.’ 

Jennifer Tipton’s lighting design, especially during the prologue, was phenomenal.  Odette, played by Lorena Feijoo, disappeared behind the scrim when Von Rothbart cast his spell on her.  She collapsed in a heap, and is shadowed on the curtain.  Then the shadow of her body slowly grew into the shadow of a swan.  The bird then took off and flew across the curtain.  The elated gasps in the audience were astonished sounds of surprise and delight at this vision.

The company’s theatrical ability is yet another outstanding force in this ballet.  In “Swan Lake,” there are two very large and lengthy groups scenes: the first being outside the palace and the second at the palace ball.  So many companies have amazing dancers performing brilliant choreography, but their acting is sketchy.  One of two extremes tends to happen: the cast either looks bored and blankly watches the action in the middle of the stage or their acting is so melodramatically overdone that all the audience sees is fake enthusiasm.  Acting while dancing, and acting while not dancing is an imperative skill with large-scale narrative ballets. The company must be able to translate the story through the choreography and the non-choreography.  San Francisco Ballet, under Tomasson’s direction, is an example to all ballet companies.  They don’t overact; they don’t underact.  They don’t stop acting to dance and then resume acting when they are finished.  Being on stage for this company is a complete experience for them.  Their theatrical technique should be studied.

The work of the corps de ballet in Act II was extraordinary; maybe the best corps work I have ever seen.  One comes to expect technical superiority from the SF Ballet, and the women in Act II did not disappoint.  Their synchronicity was thrilling.  The unison was perfect and the architectural design of the dance shone because of the meticulous attention to detail.  The variation of the four swan cygnets is extremely famous, so if it is even slightly out of sync, it is a disaster.  The four cygnets on Sunday afternoon (Clara Blanco, Bryn Gilbert, Margaret Karl and Patricia Perez) were stunning.  I would even go so far as to say that they were the highlight of the entire ballet.

The beautiful work of the corps women in Act II unfortunately brought to light some less than perfect corps and soloist work in Act I and Act III.  The attention to line and spacing that shone in the Swan chorus was definitely missing during the peasant dances of Act I.  The steps were interesting and creative but the timing and spacing was off.  In Act III, the Spanish pas de trois was again out of sync and the Russian princesses collided during a promenade in attitude derrière.  I’m not sure if they were just too close together or if the rate of turn was not the same but whichever, it needed to gel a bit more.  At the same time, this was the second performance ever of this ballet, so I imagine that some of the bugs will get worked out over the next few evenings.

Helgi Tomasson’s production is not your grandmother’s “Swan Lake.”   It is fresh, creative and theatrical yet every aspect was constructed with diligence and respect to the ballet’s history.  Every time this production is mounted, you should be there to see it.


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