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San Francisco Ballet

'Swan Lake'

by Toba Singer

January 28, 2006 -- War Memorial Auditorium, San Fransisco Opera House

Perhaps they felt triumphal because they braved the evening rainstorm. It may have been the swelling overture, conducted by Martin West -- all violins and trumpets, sounding ominous undertones and riveting overtones -- but the audience at San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House was primed for this opening night dazzler of a “Swan Lake.”

It started when Gonzalo Garcia’s entrance as Prince Siegfried was greeted with resounding applause and the approbation never let up, even after the downpour had.

The principal players announce themselves by their successive entrances into a lakeside glade where a gathering is taking place to celebrate the 21st birthday of the Prince. The self-appointed toastmaster of the festivities is the Prince’s avuncular Tutor, a less imposing version of Nutcracker’s Herr Drosselmeier, danced grandly by Val Caniparoli, his character work very much in the style of Jorge Esquivel’s, who is also a Principal Character Dancer at San Francisco Ballet. The courtesans and peasants are costumed in mossy mauves, ochres, and greens, and the men wear Edwardian jackets of contrasting multi-colors over ruffled white shirts. Their waltz is lush, measured, and proper. We immediately see an equable and complementary relationship between the corps and the soloists, and let us mention their names: Jonathan Mangosing, Jaime Garcia Castilla, Steven Norman, Chidozie Nzerem, and Rory Hohenstein, giving us batterie of perfectly clean and exuberant entrechat sixes.

Garcia’s Prince is a living homage to the adage, “The course of true love never did run smooth.” He is his own worst enemy, held hostage by an aristocratic pleaser personality that finds itself in conflict with the “supposed-to-be’s” his coming of age forces him to confront. His mother, the Queen (Anita Paciotti), presents him with a crossbow to mark his passage into adulthood and the concomitant responsibility to choose a wife. It’s his “nutcracker,” and he’s as entranced with it as Clara is with hers -- but Siegfried...he’s just not that into the females, at least not human females. The Prince is not an easy character to “find,” for the dancer cast in that role, and Garcia’s Siegfried unselfconsciously makes the slightly horrifying, slightly tantalizing discovery of his own strange proclivity with a minimum of regret and a passive acceptance that titrates the dramatic impact into easy-to-swallow doses. Curiously, this slow sizzle ramps up the tension. Garcia masters the artful contradiction inherent in his odd-duck of a Prince, and does so in spite of the trumpet player whose fanfare skitters off tune just moments before the Queen makes her entrance and presents Siegfried with the crossbow. Too bad she wasn’t packing a trumpet.

A pas de trois danced by Rachel Viselli, Vanessa Zahorian and Sergio Torrado takes us to another place, somewhat removed from the unfolding story, where we are considering the accomplishments of the relatively new soloists (Viselli and Torrado) and principal dancer, Zahorian. Viselli has acquired an appealing lyric line and lightness, evident in her pas de deux with Torrado.

Some may ask “Why, out of a corps de ballet that includes Clara Blanco, Pauli Magierek, Marillen Olson and Margaret Carl, is it Viselli who was promoted?” Her work shows that when dancers of high caliber are given a chance and paid some extra attention, many accomplishments are possible. Hopefully the others will be presented with soloist contracts soon, and positioned to elevate the quality of the overall work of the company.

Zahorian does a series of fouettés that stops on a dime and goes into a preparation for a completely counterintuitive combination. Then she repeats the sequence. The burden is huge, and she acquits herself well, but it takes its toll, and the second set of fouettés comes off looking a bit labored.

Torrado has turned down the flame and it now burns cleaner. Even so, he falls out of a pirouette in his first variation, but pulls the fat out of the fire in the second one, making a determined comeback with greater elevation, confidence, pumping up the performance to the full-out zone. If Garcia’s “pleaser” is of the obliging, passively conflicted variety, Torrado gives us the other side of that coin: the athletic competitor. Tonight he competes with himself—and wins!

As the party resumes, Siegfried goes off alone in a mood of disaffection. There is a gravitas of line as he limns his plan, gathering it altogether into a rich, slow saut de basque. Twilight arrives as the guests leave, and Prince Siegfried picks up his crossbow, now a symbol of the independence he celebrates with two or three nuclear-powered grand jetés before the curtain falls.

Act II is what we’ve all been waiting for -- where Odette, the white swan-by-day/woman-by-night, will make her entrance. But first, we meet Von Rothbart, the evil genius who has cast a spell upon the member of the Cygnus genus whom we await. Danced ghoulishly by Damian Smith, this Von Rothbart emerges from the roiling mist, twisting in the wind, tormented by his own madness, a gleam in his eye as it stares out of its sandbagged socket. The scheming Von Rothbart is so distracted that he appears to mutter aloud to himself accidentally as he rises out of the brume. Prince Siegfried, who just happens by as Von Rothbart extrudes himself from the lakeside wetlands, seems deft yet clueless as he wanders into a scenario he won’t live to regret having come upon. The contrast of personae is not lost upon us as Von Rothbart steals away.

The entrance of Tina LeBlanc as Odette, is as avian of a lighting down as one can expect from a human being. According to the veteran Odette/Odile, Natalia Makarova, it is by this entrance that every Odette should be judged. LeBlanc’s body is pure sinew, and, fearful of the moonlit hunter who has shown up at her lagoon armed with a crossbow, her gossamer arms pump furiously. She extends her right arm to shield the side and top of her head, as she pushes the air with her left. Even as she protects herself, she is curious, and the Prince is enchanted. They approach each other, and as the music wills it, he takes lunging strides in semicircles around her as she stretches and preens. The swans enter in a diagonal line formation similar to what the Wilis do in “Giselle,” and the Shades, in “La Bayadère.” This time, they are feathery, yet pristine, except when a swan knee buckles in the front line.

Odette mimes the discharge of an arrow, but the Prince convinces her that he is not about that. The two lines of swans assume positions that place their legs in perfect lattices, as Odette -- who is every ligament a swan -- re-enters with her Prince. The violin solo seems to resonate from her extended limbs, as she steps into each posé in the pas de deux. The downy lifts inflate with air, and as she becomes more human, he becomes more an amphibious creature moored to something in the water world. In the moonlight, his left arm gathers air, as his hand grazes her waist. As they embrace, the stage is suffused with swans, and for once, the pointe shoes striking the stage sound uncannily like a crescendo of flapping wings. The swans deploy themselves in an inverted crescent as the pas de deux ends.

The cygnets—Clara Blanco, Nicole Grand, Margaret Karl and Megan Low—all well matched, dance with the precision of four skewered wind-up dolls, whose technique is unimpeachable, proven by their identically formed pas de chats. The four swan maidens who follow, including Elana Altman, Brooke Moore, Nutnaree Pipit-Suksun, would have been equally on task, were it not for Sarah Van Patten dancing a half a beat behind throughout. At least everyone’s arms look lovely, as they waltz from four corners to the center.

LeBlanc’s solo follows and she delivers deliciously slow sissones, and then as the tempo picks up, a ravishing diagonal of piqué turns, triumphal arms flaring above her head at the finish.

The energy flows from the corps to the principals in a reciprocity that is rarely seen. As it reaches its climax, it is interrupted by the reappearance of Von Rothbart, who mounts his craggy outcropping. Odette stops Siegfried from felling Von Rothbart, because he is the only one who can who can end the spell that renders her woman by night and swan by day. [As a librarian by day and dance critic by night, I am nothing if not empathic.] The lovers bid one another farewell, and the curtain falls.

Act III takes us to a grand salon, where a great ball is in progress. It is here that Prince Siegfried is expected to find a mate. Try as the six princesses (and potential fiancées) may, (and they do try as their dance goes on and on), none of them manages to entice their partner, Siegfried, to walk that last mile to the altar. He tells his mother that he will not marry any of them.

Von Rothbart arrives, thinly disguised as a courtesan, but really just one degree of separation away from his true identity as an evil genius. A woman in black accompanies him. She is Odile, and apart from her costume, she looks just like Odette. The prince is intrigued and the two of them exit.

Back at the ball, there are divertissements in every language. Altman dances the Spanish divertissement with Los Hermanos Martín—Moises and Ruben. She is Plisetskaya-aggressive and saucy in her self-possession. Her movements are grandiose, dwarfing the two very tall brothers, who look a little shell-shocked.

The Czardas is costumed brilliantly in navy blue, white and another shade of blue that accentuates the navy. Three couples shine in particular: Pauli Magierek and Peter Brandenhoff, Hayley Farr and Martyn Garside, and Alexandra Lorey and Garrett Anderson.

In the Neopolitan divertissement, Elizabeth Miner is a delightfully goofy Pulcinella knockoff, showing yet another aspect of her virtuosity—an instinct for comedy. She is partnered brilliantly by my personal favorite, Pascal Molat. Their mugging gives us a few cheap thrills, but not at the expense of technique, and Molat’s elevation raises the rafters.

Erin McNulty and David Arce lead the four couples in the Mazurka. There is a little slip and fall that has Courtney Wright (slip) colliding with her partner Steve Norman (fall). I am disappointed that there is no Jester, a wonderful dancing role added in later versions that offers welcome comic relief.

All is forgiven when Odile and Siegfried dance the Black Swan pas de deux, punctuated by coaching “asides,” from the poseur who is Von Rothbart. LeBlanc’s piqués and manèges are splendid, the fouettés, faultless, gaining in velocity, as do Garcia’s bounding grand jetés, and perfectly stellar sécondes, and so it is with heavy heart that I note that there seemed to be absolutely no hint of coyness or disingenuousness in Leblanc’s Odile. It feels as if sweet Odette has simply molted her white feathers and grown black ones in their place. It is no wonder that the Queen is jubilant when Siegfried announces their betrothal! Since the afianzata is still very much The Swan Next Door, it is not clear when the “Oh, Deal!” moment comes, and Siegfried realizes that he has been set up. It does come, because he flees to the lake to find and explain himself to Odette.

As dawn breaks, Von Rothbart enters and exits, the swans return and one slips. [Who will break the curse on the opera house stage surface?] Von Rothbart reenters with Odette in tow. Siegfried reclaims her in lifts that can only be described as telescopic caresses, where Odette’s wing span spreads passion with each port de bras. There is a three-way mêlée involving Von Rothbart, Prince Siegfried and Odette. The swans return, safely this time! Siegfried and Von Rothbart fight to the finish and as Siegfried wrestles his darker doppelganger, intent on victory, one cannot help but think of Jacob wrestling the Angel. Von Rothbart falls to his death.

As the music changes keys for the swan song of swan songs, we see that in spite of his moral triumph, Odette cannot entrust her life to the Prince who has betrayed her. She uses her new freedom to take her own life by leaping into the lake. The passionate Prince follows her. We see them united in a distant place that is neither the Kingdom of the Shades nor the forest where the Wilis dwell, but somewhere like that, only with a view of the lake.

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