What Helgi hath wrought

  • by Paul Parish
  • Tuesday January 26, 2010
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Big-time dance kicked in last week, starting Wednesday, and it kicked in big-time. With San Francisco Ballet back in the Opera House, and San Francisco Performances bringing in major touring companies from around the world, and some of the most important independent choreographers from the Bay Area doing their thing, too, there was too much going on for a poor old country boy like me. I had to miss Morphoses (the Wheeldon Company, widely regarded as New York's most promising high-art dance) and Keith Hennessy's Crotch, and Savage Jazz Dance's premiere of Agon, but did manage to catch our great ballet company's gala opening night and the opening night of Swan Lake.

The Gala was not just a mixed-bill of hit tunes from the SFB Ballet rep – though it was that – and it wasn't just a party for the wealthy CEOs who support the ballet, though it was that, too. Like the galas of the last 25 years, the program was an argument that makes the case without words for believing in ballet as a great art and also as the jewel in the crown of San Francisco. For the last 25 years, artistic director Helgi Tomasson has been making ballet really matter in the intellectual life of this town. Tomasson has had the advantage of the tradition he came from, since he worked for Balanchine (who left the rest of the musical theater, including the Metropolitan Opera, in the dust).

Well, there's genius and there's talent. Tomasson is not the genius choreographer Balanchine was, nor Robbins. But he is borderline genius at assembling a company of glorious dancers and giving them interesting things to do – with the advice and perhaps consent of his extremely astute partner in life, Marlene Tomasson, who at the Gala received the recognition she's deserved as principal consultant and perhaps co-architect of the world-class SF Ballet, when she was presented with the company's highest honor, the Christensen Medal.

Out of 15 dances at the Gala, nearly were half were Helgi's, and we saw enough to assess his craftsmanship and the absence of negatives – the man can edit, and he can pick talent, assess their qualities, and give them steps that make them look superhuman. SFB is a man's company – the five guys who danced his Concerto Grosso looked like gods, executing their glorious tricks, which any child can tell are difficult and fascinating challenges to the balance and to the ability to freeze in a beautiful position, pirouette several times in that position, then keep going as if you were a kid on a skateboard and this is all really casual, huh? They can pull it off, one after another, each in his own way, James Sofranko, Diego Cruz, Hansuke Yamamoto, Pascal Molat, and Garen Scribner were each at the top of their game, and you could not help feeling that the diversity and excellence of the group made you feel proud to live here. You'd want them to be ambassadors for SF values.

It was an all-star evening, both high art and popular. Three at least of our dancers are major presences on YouTube. Yuan-Yuan Tan is a major star in her native China, and appeared twice on the Gala, in Chi-Lin (a dance steeped in Chinese sculptural imagery) and in the mysterious, haunting pas de deux from The Fifth Season, which exploits her gymnastic prowess and uncanny ability to deploy her limbs in configurations it seems we've never seen before.

Similarly, Maria Kochetkova and Sofiane Sylve are stars on the Internet – Sofiane's Super Pirouettes, at last count, had 1,695,271 views on YouTube – and Kochetkova (the opening-night ballerina in SFB's Swan Lake ) won first prize and the TV audience's heart on one of last year's competitive dance shows.

Tomasson has pretty much let these dancers loose in his wacky version of Swan Lake. It's been re-set in the 18th century, as if Casanova (or the Marquis de Sade) had something to do with the seductions and betrayals of the story, but that's mild compared to the "concepts" thrust on this ballet in other companies. Swan Lake invites directors to muck about – I've seen a version (Zeffirelli's) set in an insane asylum, another in Neuschwannstein (the castle of Mad Ludwig, King of Bavaria); in the Met's bizarre version, the sorcerer who casts the spell that turns our heroine into a swan is known to the audience as "Swamp Thing." I could go on.

Swan Lake was Tchaikovsky's first ballet, written in his first enthusiasm before he'd mastered the craft, and though the music is sublime, there's way too much music, and the immortal longings he unleashed in this work are hard to harness. The first version was a dubious success; it was only after his death that a great choreographer tried to salvage the piece, which resulted in the version that's become the basis of all our Swan Lakes. This was first staged for Tchaikovsky's Memorial Concert, conceived by Marius Petipa and "realized" by Lev Ivanov, as the second act, where the Prince meets the Swan Queen, falls in love with her, persuades her that he does love her, and swears to marry her. Though the second act is complete in itself, Petipa expanded it to include the whole tragedy, in which the Prince is fooled by the sorcerer and tricked into choosing the counterfeit swan. This version is still performed by the Royal Ballet, based on notations brought to London by dancers fleeing the Russian Revolution, and it's the only version that is truly coherent.

Our version has been bizarrely tweaked, reset in the 18th century, yet the audience loves it – which shows the power of dancing, and of the music, to override contradictions and make the audience leap to their feet. Kochetkova was too dove-like, more pathetic than tragic, for my taste, but the audience disagreed with me. She was well-matched by Davit Karapetyan, a thrilling classical dancer and superb technician, and brilliantly supported by Vitor Luis, Frances Chung, Lily Rogers, Diego Cruz, Dores Andre, Clara Blanco, Damien Smith, and many others in supporting roles in making this fantasy hold the stage for yet another generation of theatergoers. The orchestra, under Martin West, made Tchaikovsky's score sound glorious; we heard every detail, every counter-melody, every tremolando and cymbal crash and haunting oboe solo.