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San Francisco Ballet

'Swan Lake'

by Katie Rosenfeld

January 29, 2006 -- War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, CA

As story ballets go, “Swan Lake” is arguably the perennial favorite, offering something for everyone in the audience: a touch of magic, a treacherous villain and a love story for the young at heart, gorgeous, expressive music for the well-cultured intelligentsia, and some of the best-known, most-learned choreography for the ballet students, professional dancers and seasoned ballet goers who glue their opera glasses to the bridge of their noses so as to not miss even a single step.

San Francisco Ballet’s 2006 revival of director/choreographer Helgi Tomasson’s 1988 version does not disappoint. The sets, while a bit sparse, successfully transported us from the idyllic springtime of the first Act to the eerie, dark lakeside of the second and the stately ballroom of the third, framing the action while allowing the dancing to fill the space. The costuming was also spot-on, the contrast between the colorful peasant garb and the stark, sleek whiteness of the swans helped to increase the sense of magic surrounding Odette and her court.

Sunday afternoon’s cast included some real delights. The pas de trois in the first act, danced by Claire Pascal, Nutnaree Pipit-Suksun and Hansuke Yamamoto, was technically brilliant and executed to near perfection. Yamamoto looked downright weightless as he bounced through the tough beats and turns of his variation, his slight frame exhibiting incredible strength while his dimpled smile belied the difficulty of the steps. Pipit-Suksun is simply a joy to watch, every inch of her incredibly long, lithe body emanating a natural radiance that added sparkle to her already breathtaking, stylish dancing. Pascal is the definition of precision, her footwork is amazingly clean and could be used as a “how to” guide for other dancers. Unfortunately, next to the serene, cheerful smiles of her companions her expressions seemed washed out and a little bland, which detracted from an otherwise commendable performance.

The celebratory peasant dancing of the first act was a foreshadowing of the corps work to come in the second. As someone with a fair amount of experience working in a corps de ballet, I know how much time and energy goes into getting 20-plus dancers into straight lines and keeping everyone in those lines while they dance. Tomasson should be proud of his corps (and of his ballet masters): the placement and use of patterns throughout the production were visually stunning.

Joan Boada, whose Prince Siegfried spent almost all of Act I standing around sipping wine and flirting with the peasant girls, pulled off a slow, controlled solo at the very end of the act which left me wanting more – to be able to sustain the balance point at the end of a turn and slowly melt into an arabesque is the mark of a talented dancer. To be able to do so after spending half an hour getting cold while standing around the stage is truly remarkable.

I must take a moment to bring up something I noticed because I was watching the performance with someone who did not grow up watching a lot of classical ballet: Ballet mime is not very effective when you do not already know the story inside and out. Sure, I know that the Queen Mother wants Prince Siegfried to marry, that she is giving him the crossbow because it is an appropriate present for a prince’s 21st birthday and there is good hunting in the form of some swans down by the lake, and that she is throwing a ball in his honor tomorrow night so that he can (hopefully) meet a nice princess and settle down, but it is easy to misinterpret all the waving and pointing and shaking of heads to mean “Here’s a crossbow,” “I don’t want to hunt!,” “But you’re a prince,” “OK fine I’ll shoot at the swans, now let’s watch some more dancing.” I do not want to suggest that this reflects badly on the dancers, I think it is simply the nature of the beast.

When done well, as it was Saturday afternoon, there is something truly astonishing about the first entrance of the swans. At first the line of dancers is simple and elegant, all the legs repeating the same arabesque line. As you watch, the line curves and continues in serpentine splendor until the stage is full of identically beautiful swan-women, each arm and body echoing the next. While I realize most people come to the ballet to see the leads, the pas de deux and variations performed by soloists and principals, a well-rehearsed corps is something worth mentioning. This one gets a gold star in my book.

Dores Andre, Clara Blanco, Dana Genshaft and Margaret Karl danced the challenging Cygnets variation in near-perfect synchronicity, every foot, every fifth position, every passé identical, their upper bodies and arms surprisingly relaxed in the signature linked-arm chain. Courtney Clarkson, Mariellen Olson, Lily Rogers and Courtney Wright were pristine, elegant Swan Maidens, all long lines and graceful poses.

Kristin Long gave an admirable performance in her first shot at the dual role of Odette/Odile with SFB. Her graceful arms and upper back made her a convincing swan, and her shimmering bourrées expressed both the feathers of a swan and the nervousness of a woman falling in love. She was weightless and grounded simultaneously, if a little restrained. Some partnering work seemed a little off, as though Boada and Long did not have enough time to relax into the choreography and find the comfortable, relaxed quality they both showed when dancing alone. That said the second act pas de deux was lovely, quite musical and effective.

A quick aside: it is a dangerous thing to give opera glasses to someone who enjoys checking out the audience and theater during the intermissions. My husband was doing just that, and noticed something surprising: it seems the Opera House has not had a good dusting in a number of years. The gargoyles on each side of the stage, the carvings along the proscenium arch and the railings behind the side boxes were coated with thick, grey dust. Note to the Board: it is time to hire a cleaning crew.

The third act lived up to my expectations completely. Featuring some of the best ballet music ever, the lively ethnic dances were performed well by all, Dores Andre and Matthew Stewart standing out with their exuberant, bright Neapolitan. The Princesses (Hayley Farr, Alexandra Lorey, Pauli Magierek, Erin McNulty, Shannon Roberts and Courtney Wright) were flirtatious, charming and delightfully disappointed when Prince Siegfried failed to show them much interest.

The arrival of the evil Von Rothbart and haughty Odile marks the turning point for the ballet. Up to that moment, you can believe that Siegfried and Odette will end up happily married with baby cygnets running around their castle. But no, dark magic will triumph over love. Long’s Odile was triumphant; she enjoyed every moment while she drew poor Siegfried into her net. The Black Swan pas de deux was a delicious blend of Boada’s enchantment-induced confusion and Long’s well-articulated scheming. You could hear Siegfried’s inner monologue: “Is it really Odette? But… she’s so confident. Where is the shy, fearful swan from the lake? Wait, there she is, fluttering her arms and looking beguilingly innocent. Oh, I love her!”

Following the pas de deux, Boada finally got to dance with all the bravura and masculine strength he hinted at back in the first act. The effortlessness of his giant double tours and gentle landings garnered a few sighs and a great deal of applause, as did his smooth, slow pirouettes (I am always impressed by a natural left-turner). Long’s variation was stunning; she was incredibly strong, perfectly placed and sailed through the difficult series of turns and balances while seeming to shed every one of Odette’s feathers, replacing them with a powerful intensity that outshone her performance in the second act. It was a shock to everyone in the house when, immediately following the final pose, she tripped and fell to one knee as she left the stage.

A moment like that is feared by anyone who has ever been on stage. You are taught from a very early age that the best and only thing you can do is get up and keep going. Easy enough to say, but incredibly difficult to do. All dancers remember the first time they fell in front of an audience. Most, I am sure, would tell you how mortifying an experience it is, how they burst into tears or swore like a sailor or got chewed out by an unforgiving director. It takes incredible strength of will to forgive yourself, forget it and move on. That is exactly what Long did: her next entrance was for the almighty fouetté sequence, 32 whipping turns done all on one leg, no breaks, no do-overs. And she nailed it. Perhaps not with the multiple, added turns that some ballerinas do, but cleanly and proficiently. Not something one can do when one is sniffling back tears of frustration.

Following the pas de deux, Van Rothbart forces Prince Siegfried to swear his love to Odile, who he still believes is his beloved Odette. As soon as Siegfried makes the oath, a vision of Odette appears and he realizes his fatal error while Von Rothbart and Odile laugh at his foolishness. At least, that is what the program says happens. Unfortunately for those of us sitting in the “cheap seats” in the balcony, the set included a black rectangle suspended just below the proscenium arch, which blocked our view of the backdrop where the vision appeared. Anyone either unfamiliar with the story or unwilling to read the tiny font in the program misses a major plot point for the ballet.

Mayhem ensues, the courtiers leave quickly and Siegfried is left to ponder his terrible mistake. He returns to the lake, searching through the grieving swan maidens for is true love. When he finds her, she tearfully informs him of her now-permanent swan state. He apologizes, she forgives him, Von Rothbart and Siegfried fight over her, and she finally breaks away from them, takes her existence into her own hands and throws herself into the lake. Siegfried quickly follows, and the strength of their love for each other kills the evil magician. The final, chilling moment of the remaining swans, backs to the audience, grieving while they look at the final ripples in the lake brought the afternoon to a bittersweet, perfect close.

As we were leaving the theater, I overheard a little girl say to her mother, “you know who my favorite was? The bad guy.” It must be mentioned that Ruben Martin was effectively creepy and evil as Von Rothbart, filling the stage with mile-long limbs and an expressive face. Overall, this production is everything you would expect from one of the top companies in the country.

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