Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 7 / 15 February 2018

Swans will be swans


Tiit Hellimets and Yuan Yuan Tan in SF Ballet's Swan Lake. Photo: Erik Tomasson
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San Francisco Ballet's new production of Swan Lake opened only a few hours in advance of this writing, and dazzled by the many beauties I've just seen, and puzzled by some anomalies, I can only record first impressions at this point. The event brought the entire floor of the opera house to its feet at the curtain calls. I did not feel that way about the performance myself. The ballerina could not hold my interest, though Tiit Hellimets as the Prince did give a great performance. But clearly last Saturday, the crowd at our opera house – which was filled to capacity, with standees several rows deep – was responding sincerely to the performance. It was the dancers and musicians who worked up the crowd like this – and indeed, they had given 100%.

The first time you see Swan Lake is like first love. The music is so strong it can sweep you off your feet. If you've never seen it, you should go see this quick while it lasts – the last shows are this weekend, and Sarah van Patten's performance tonight (Thurs.) of the ballerina's role promises to be coherent and deeply thought-out. So long as the performers "swim" with its currents and don't do anything wrong, Tchaikovsky casts a spell that brings your deepest hopes and fears into play.

SF Ballet mounted the first full-length production of Swan Lake in the USA, in 1940; backed by the Russian community, Willam Christensen choreographed his own version to great success. But it fell out of the rep, and nearly 50 years passed before Helgi Tomasson raised a new production, which gained international praise for the prettiness of the staging and the astounding clarity of the dancing, although it was noticed that the bright cheerfulness of the incidental dances was out of place for a tragedy.

Tomasson's new production is not a thorough-going re-imagining; they've just changed the look, the clothes and the architecture, moved the setting forward about 30 years, from Louis XIV to English Regency, and moved everything down the social ladder several notches. The first act looks like a garden party at the big house in a novel by Jane Austen. Aside from some tweaking and fabulous new dances in the ballroom scene, it's the same choreography.

The same steps Joanna Berman did 20 years ago in a Fragonard-ish billowing dress underlay a silvery, Empire-cut silk-muslin skirt worn by Frances Chung in the first act pas de trois, and Rachel Viselli floated very prettily in the phrases originated by Wendy van Dyck. Taras Domitro tore up the stage in some new tricks, less intricate than the originals, but he is such a star, why not give him some scope? Everything feels leaner, mostly because the fabrics, the silhouettes, and the lighting have hardened. But it also feels like we're looking at the gentry, not the aristocracy. The Prince's mother looks like a Gainsborough with her high wig, but she looks like she's gone on lean rations, too. She has only two ladies in waiting. If this is a court, it's a very small one.

You can't see the lake when the Swan Queen points to it and says that itÕs her motherÕs tears. A huge piece of charcoal stretches across the back of the stage. It hardly feels romantic not to be able to gaze past the swans over the lake into infinity, the eternal world where the lovers will finally find the "place for us" they have to die to achieve. The swans are lit like dancers in a William Forsythe ballet, their edges are hard, and every foot that's not perfectly pointed shows its imperfections. The cygnets' quartet was a festival of not-quite-pointed feet. Odette's flurry of entrechat-quatre passˇs were not at all pretty if you weren't looking at her flapping arms.

I'm not sure how much that matters. I very much want to see it again, and from different vantage-points in the house. Good dancers will show new shades of meaning in the dances, and these dancers are fantastic. All over the evening there were fabulous performances: by the two big swans, Lily Rogers and Elana Altman; Dores Andre as an aristocrat; Diego Cruz, Christopher Mondoux, Benjamin and Matthew Stewart, outstanding as peasants at the prince's birthday party. Ms. Chung was thrilling again in the brilliant Act III Russian dance, along with Dana Genshaft, Garen Scribner, and Hansuke Yamamoto. Elana Altman, Brett Bauer, and Anthony Spaulding excelled in the Spanish dance, and Elizabeth Miner and James Sofranko in the Tarantella. Pauli Magierek and Aaron Orza were brilliant in the Hungarian dance.

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