Swans will be swans

  • by Paul Parish
  • Wednesday February 24, 2016
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San Francisco Ballet dancers Yuan Yuan Tan and Tiit<br>Helimets in Helgi Tomasson's <i>Swan Lake.</i> Photo: Erik Tomasson
San Francisco Ballet dancers Yuan Yuan Tan and Tiit
Helimets in Helgi Tomasson's Swan Lake. Photo: Erik Tomasson

Swan Lake changed my life. I've asked around, and an astonishing number of people tell me the same thing, e.g., "I saw it when I was 12; until then, I thought dance was stupid. But Swan Lake, it was so intelligent!" I had the same experience. When I first saw Swan Lake, I was wrecked, could not move, most of the audience had left the theater before I could stand up. It was, it seemed to me, as profound and serious a tragedy as Hamlet.

That was in 1970; the Royal Ballet's production was a lot like Hamlet. The delicate, tender prince, conscience-stricken, hesitates before taking power, and when push comes to shove, he sacrifices himself to do the right thing. This is a perennial story; if you're one of the millions who have read all of the Harry Potter saga, you'll recognize the theme.

In Swan Lake, this devotion to an impalpable ideal is powerfully embodied in the music, which is truly overwhelming in its power to catch you up and hold you in thrall. Tchaikovsky was young when he wrote it, and not yet fully aware of what a ballet actually needs " for this reason, the ballet's grip on the audience is unparalleled " even a faulty production like San Francisco Ballet's, which opened last Friday night at the Opera House, can bring the entire audience to its feet. When it's all over, the lovers have jumped off the cliff and immolated themselves to break the curse and free the swan-maidens, and the dancers come forward to take their bows, still in character but manifestly themselves. Every single soul on the opera house floor was standing and cheering for Yuan Yuan Tan and Tiit Helimets, who'd just given a chaste, scrupulous reading of the sacred text, in a production so riddled with stupid costumes and wrong-headed mise-en-scene that their devotion to the music and the classic choreography made them seem martyred to an ideal, and we got it.

San Francisco Ballet dancers Yuan Yuan Tan and Tiit Helimets in Helgi Tomasson's Swan Lake. Photo: Erik Tomasson

Face it: Swan Lake is the Mona Lisa of ballet. She can come out with a moustache and goatee, or a ring in her nose, and you still know that the Swan Queen has been cursed, that her mother died of grief, and that that lake ("which in our case," as the poet said, "we have not got") is filled with her mother's tears.

The dancers and the musicians have once again saved Swan Lake from the fate of so many Swan Lakes. Under the Soviets, the commissars required a forward-looking, Communist happy ending, despite the catastrophic collapse of all worldly hopes you can hear in the music, which is in fact best realized in the all-male-swan version immortalized in Billy Elliott. Under the capitalists, many trivial, sentimental versions have prevailed " including, alas, ours.

The great versions have been unabashedly tragic. They die. The prince sacrifices his people to break the curse that rescues the swans, much as Hamlet let the Danes  be taken over by the Swedes. His own people may not have been grateful. I'm actually picturing Bernie Sanders as the Prince, but I think the fit will pass by Election Day.

They are beautiful, they are noble. In the great versions of this ballet, there is no need to introduce the heroine before Act II. The architecture of the story is set up to establish her, when she finally appears, as the answer to the melancholy prince's prayers. A ballerina is a ballerina " we have to wait before she enters the action " and if we need to know who she is, she will tell us. Classic versions of Swan Lake have a mime scene when the prince first meets the swan. It gives the back-story, like the dumb-show in Hamlet, which confirms Hamlet's suspicions that his uncle murdered his father. The Prince, after his mother has sprung it on him at his 21st birthday party that tomorrow he must Choose a Bride (!) "so that the dynasty can continue" (!) takes the phallic symbol (i.e., the crossbow she gave him as a birthday present) to go indulge a fit of denial by heading into the woods duck-hunting " well, swan-hunting in this case " where he meets the swan-he-falls-in-love-with-and-must-not-kill.

Tchaikovsky's music is so powerful that almost any version of Swan Lake will floor you, despite the level of perversity of the concept imposed upon it. Choreographers, despite their proclivities, get intoxicated, too, and in setting Swan Lake they are sincere. Dancers, at twice the level of sincerity of the choreographer, will try to make the steps fit the music " I cannot overstate the degree to which dancers will kill themselves to make this happen. As Balanchine himself said, "The music is so noble!" " seriously, they will die to make you feel it " and even a Swan Lake set in the era of Jane Austen (which is what ours is, and it's ridiculously inappropriate) can carry the day.

It's amazing, how powerful this ballet is. Helgi Tomasson, who grew up in Iceland and became a great dancer in Copenhagen, where there was no tradition of dancing Swan Lake, and who came to be a star at New York City Ballet recruited by Jerome Robbins, had no significant connection with this ballet, and has made two versions of it. Both are wrong, but both are sincere. The first was set in the era of Watteau; the second in Jane Austen's time like a footnote to Mansfield Park. The bad guy is truly a seducer, but this is not Les Liaisons Dangereuses. It's closer to Twilight. The good guy is a good guy, even if he's inadequate " that's a shame, but he's Good Enough. He was Tiit Helimets, who was good enough, though he was dancing with an injury and had to scale it back. He never let his ballerina down. To see Helimets partner Yuan Yuan Tan is to see a soft hand place a ballerina exactly where she is most comfortable, and she danced as if she were absolutely free. Tan is now famous in her homeland, the People's Republic of China. She's a VIP at embassy balls, and sits next to Ms. Obama at State dinners, she is so famous in both countries. (Full disclosure: Tan wished me happy birthday on Facebook.) Our production sucks. The dancers saved it, all of them. Tan was heroic: she made us hear the glorious violinist Cordula Marks, the new Concertmaster of the orchestra, who played the solo accompaniment to her grand adagio for the White Swan, all the way through the immaculate pas de deux, in the sancum sanctorumpas de deux of the second act, especially during the "trembling thigh" section of that romantic  encounter, where she yields to him. That dance tells you everything " she gets it; despite everything, she trusts him; and she puts her fate in his hands. Which means, from here on out, it's up to him.

This ballet will break your heart, no matter what. It is the best there is.