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Review: SWAN LAKE at San Francisco Ballet Offers a Welcome Opportunity to Revisit an All-Time Classic

This final presentation of San Francisco Ballet's 2021 Digital Season is available for streaming through June 9th

Review: SWAN LAKE at San Francisco Ballet Offers a Welcome Opportunity to Revisit an All-Time Classic
The corps de ballet shimmers in the moonlight
in San Francisco Ballet's production of Helgi Tomasson's Swan Lake

San Francisco Ballet brings its extremely successful 2021 Digital Season to a close by revisiting that all-time classic, Swan Lake, in a production choreographed by Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson back in 2009, and captured on video in 2016. Swan Lake is a particular favorite of mine, so I was sincerely looking forward to seeing it again and would love to be able to report that SFB was ending their season on a high note. Alas, that isn't quite the case here. Instead, it was a little like re-encountering a long-lost friend who is going through a bit of a rough patch. It's still lovely to see them, but they do seem to be missing some of the spring in their step.

While several of the usual assets of any Swan Lake come through loud and clear in this video capture - the soaring, turbulent Tchaikovsky score, a top-notch ballerina giving us her take on the fiendishly difficult dual role of Odette-Odile, the frolicsome foursome of interlocked cygnets - this is the one program in SFB's entire season that suffers most from the digital format. The camera lens tends to flatten and condense the vast expanse of the War Memorial Opera House stage so that even when the image contains dozens of dancers, it still looks somehow undernourished and curiously wan. The camera also cannot capture the full contrast of the white swan costumes against the dark backdrops, thereby diminishing the nuance and artistry of SFB's stunning corps de ballet and causing them to register more as white silhouettes. This is particularly problematic in the justly famous second act where the stage is full of swans wafting across the stage in constantly-shifting geometric formations. Here they often read more as a sort of indistinct white mass. And in closeup shots, the stark white against black visual motif unfortunately highlights even the slightest out-of-synch movement. A single swan moves an arm an inch too high and suddenly your eye is drawn to a tiny inconsistency that in the theater you would never even notice.

OK, enough focus on what is slightly off. On the plus side, we do still get a sumptuous production of a terrifically entertaining ballet. All the famous set pieces are here - that perfectly choreographed second "white act" with its gloriously moving depiction of improbable love, the thrilling third-act BLACK SWAN pas de deux with its famous 32 fouettés for the ballerina, and the dramatic denouement that brings the ballet to its achingly romantic close. Tomasson's most effective inventions are a spirited pas de trois that injects some much-needed real dance into the otherwise promenade-heavy Act I, and an introspective solo for the Prince before he heads off to shoot some swans.

Review: SWAN LAKE at San Francisco Ballet Offers a Welcome Opportunity to Revisit an All-Time Classic
Prince Siegfried (Tiit Helimets) and Odette (Yuan Yuan Tan) fall deeply in love
in San Francisco Ballet's production of Helgi Tomasson's Swan Lake

Designer Jonathan Fensom's sets and costumes, which have a sort of 18th-century meets contemporary chic vibe, are a bit hit or miss. For instance, the swans all wear identical feathered caps that look quite stylish, but tend to erase any sense of individuality among the corps women. There are some big D dramatic set pieces such as a rocky lakeside promontory and a vertiginous curving stairway to infinity that, while striking, don't register as impressively as they do live in the theater.

The performances are sometimes lovely, sometimes thrilling, and sometimes less than ideal. The highlight of the first act is the aforementioned pas de trois, danced beautifully by Dores André, Sasha De Sola and Taras Domitro. The trio neatly prefigures the one-man-caught-between-two-women dynamic of the central plot, though without any hint of the darkness to come. This is just an entertaining lark about nothing more than the joy of dancing. André and De Sola are both winning and distinctive, skittering through their difficult footwork with buoyancy and panache. Domitros astonishes with the perfect verticality of his spinning jumps. Equally delightful is the famous (and often-parodied) Act II dance for the 4 cygnets, here Ellen Rose Hummel, Lauren Parrot, Julia Rowe and Emma Rubinowitz. The women with arms interlocked deftly move as a single unit through the complicated and lightning-quick choreography. Every toe point, every leg extension, every turn of the head is right on the money, even in this unforgiving medium of video. It's completely intoxicating.

There are also some nicely incisive performances in the Act III specialty dances, especially Francisco Mungamba and Lonnie weeks in the Spanish number, and Jahna Frantziskonis and Esteban Hernandez in the Neopolitan. They are all bring a delightful freshness and brio to their brief variations.

Review: SWAN LAKE at San Francisco Ballet Offers a Welcome Opportunity to Revisit an All-Time Classic
Odile (Yuan Yuan Tan) exults in her successful seduction of Prince Siegfried (Tiit Helimets)
in San Francisco Ballet's production of Helgi Tomasson's Swan Lake

The leading roles of Odette-Odile and Prince Siegfried are performed by two of SFB's best dancers, Yuan Yuan Tan and Tiit Helimets. They dance well together here, but do not quite hit the heights we know they are capable of - for instance, as they did in the tender, haunting pas de deux from Tomasson's 7 for Eight earlier this season. I kept feeling like they were holding back just a little and not fully surrendering to the moment. Helimets also struggled noticeably in some of his bigger bravura moments in the BLACK SWAN pas de deux. Tan makes a lovely Odette (the White Swan) with her endlessly expressive arms and pliant torso (I love how when she swoons, she bends all the way down to the floor!), though I never bought that she fully committed to the tragic romance of the character. Her best moments were as Odile (the BLACK SWAN), where her movement was almost aggressively crisp and angular. The way she taunts the Prince by tearing through a passage of quicksilver steps to suddenly balance on one toe, seemingly forever, is nothing less than heart-stopping.

Review: SWAN LAKE at San Francisco Ballet Offers a Welcome Opportunity to Revisit an All-Time Classic
One of many captivating moments featuring the corps de ballet
in San Francisco Ballet's production of Helgi Tomasson's Swan Lake

While this video rendering of Swan Lake is less than a total triumph, there is still some good news on the horizon. The company has announced that Swan Lake will be included in its 2022 in-person season, which will also celebrate Tomasson's final season leading SFB after an astonishingly successful 37 years at the helm. His Swan Lake really needs to be seen live, and I for one can't wait til we once again have the chance to fully experience it the way it was meant to be.

(All photos by Erik Tomasson)

San Francisco Ballet's production of Swan Lake is available for streaming through June 9, 2021. For further information and to purchase tickets, visit www.sfballet.org or call (415)865-2000.




From This Author - Jim Munson


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