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Joanna G. Harris
Music and Dance Reviews
Performance Reviews
War Memorial Opera House
United States
San Francisco Bay Area
San Francisco, CA

San Francisco Ballet's Swan Lake Good but not Great

by Joanna G. Harris
February 20, 2016
War Memorial Opera House
301 Van Ness Avenue at Grove Street
San Francisco, CA 94102
(415) 861-5600
Joanna G. Harris Author, Beyond Isadora: Bay Area Dancing, 1916-1965. Regent Press, Berkeley, CA, 2009. Contributor to reviews on culturevulture.net
“Why a swan?”

Many years ago an magazine article by Gregory Bateson prompted a symposium on Swan Lake to consider the many dimensions of this famous ballet. There were discussions of the folklore, the many varied productions and their history, Tchaikovsky's score for it, and finally, its audience appeal. One strong suggestion emerged. As Bateson himself said, it is an act of faith that one believes the real live ballerina has been transformed into a swan. For this reviewer, in San Franciso Ballet's production of Swan Lake February 19 at War Memorial Opera House, principal dancer Yuan Yuan Tan, with all her skill and beauty did not accomplish this stage magic. Perhaps in these days of tested reality, we prefer not to believe; yet we might hope.

Tan is an accomplished artist, a brilliant technician and a commanding stage presence. But she does not deliver the nuanced, dramatic appeal that draws this historic work deeply into its folkloric mystery…the fairy tale of transformation through love.

Tiit Helimets, as prince Seigfried, gave a good performance as the "mother-dominated" young man who is drawn into the romantic world of young maidens as swans…under the control of magician Von Rothbart. Toward the end of the production however, Helimets seemed tired and unable to give the technical work needed in the role.

Helgi Tomasson takes credit for the choreography, though the “Black Swan Pas de deux” and Act II choreography is rightly attributed to Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov from the Imperial Ballet production of January 15, 1895, at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg. Tomasson brings to the production a variety of folk dances, first in the birthday party scene in Act I (staged before the gates of a palace) and later, in Act III, at court as entertainment. The numbers in Act III are expected as part of the old Russian court entertainment (see Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker).

Act I is usually set in the woods, giving Siegfried’s birthday gift of a crossbow some topical validity. Village folk dance entertainments offer a variety of introductions to the company and the school’s young students. It is all very pleasant but a bit long and dull. The pas de trois by Dores André, Taras Domitro and Sasha De Sola, however, was brilliantly executed and brought a livelier dimension to an audience eager to get on to the story in Act II.

There are many conclusions to this ballet, depending on the history, culture, production choices and choreographer. Von Rothbart, obviously a German, is usually defeated after a short struggle with the betrayed Siegfried, who has been captivated by the black swan, Odile. Tan accomplished this role with more bravura than she did as the white swan, Odette. Intensity is her forte.

In Act IV (back at the lake), both Odette, and Siegfried climb a cliff and jump, supposedly realizing an apotheosis, though we last see them once again (Odette in a white dress) atop the cliff. Dramatically it is an unsatisfying finale. Once upon a time, two birds flew across the sky as the curtain closed. This time, we never did see the lake.

Credits are due to Alexander Reneff-Olson who dramatically portrayed Von Rothbart and to the always charming Anita Paciotti as the Queen Mother. Martin West conducted the familiar but somewhat fractured Tchaikovsky’s score; Corula Merks contributed the violin solo and Eric Sung the cello work.

There is enough gorgeous staging (although the full moon could be dimmed) to please local audiences for all future performances. Other ballerinas (Mathhilde Froustey, Maria Kochetkova and Sofiane Sylve) will offer their unique dimensions and interpretations through the closing date, Friday, February 26. As a ballet, Swan Lake is a masterpiece and deserves all the magic, charm, visual splendor and enchanted dancing the San Francisco Ballet can provide.
Yuan Yuan Tan (as Odile) and Tiit Helimets (as Prince Seigfried) in San Francisco Ballet's “Swan Lake”.

Yuan Yuan Tan (as Odile) and Tiit Helimets (as Prince Seigfried) in San Francisco Ballet's “Swan Lake”.

Photo © & courtesy of Erik Tomasson

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