CriticalDance Forum

San Francisco Ballet 2009: Swan Lake
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Author:  RaHir [ Sat Feb 14, 2009 5:31 pm ]
Post subject:  San Francisco Ballet 2009: Swan Lake

San Francisco Ballet's daring new 'Swan Lake'
Rachel Howard, Chronicle Dance Correspondent
Friday, February 13, 2009
Helgi Tomasson is having trouble keeping secrets.

The normally reserved, cool artistic director of the San Francisco Ballet rises suddenly from the sofa in his office at the Ballet Association building. He hurries across the room, pauses as if he knows he shouldn't do this, then lifts a black cloth. Voila! Before him stands a scale model of the third-act set for his new production of "Swan Lake," premiering Saturday.

A boyish smile warms Tomasson's face, and he clasps his hands.

"Now you can see," he says.

And it's impossible not to share in his anticipation. The palace scene devised by Tony-nominated Broadway designer Jonathan Fensom looks nothing like the fusty Watteau-inspired ballroom of Tomasson's previous "Swan Lake" production, which raised the level of the company's dancing - and its national stature - at its first performances in 1988. In fact, the new set's bold spaciousness - and in particular, a dramatic focal point Tomasson wants to keep under wraps - looks strikingly different from the antiquated image much of the general public probably holds of the Tchaikovsky classic.

Tomasson is counting on the full-size realization of this model to live up to the dazzle. This "Swan Lake," more than two years in the making with a budget of $3 million, must stay vital for at least 15 years.

Then there is Tomasson's deeper ambition. He wants to defy that catch-22 of ballet box office: Productions of the story ballet classics such as "Swan Lake" are essential to drawing in older audiences, yet can project an image of ballet as outmoded to a new generation of viewers.


Author:  RaHir [ Sat Feb 14, 2009 5:32 pm ]
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And here's a link to the thread re: casting.

Author:  fluteboo [ Mon Feb 23, 2009 11:16 am ]
Post subject:  Sunday matinee: :Feijoo and Vilanoba

You missed it? Words don't suffice. Standing ovation, well-deserved. Feijoo offered a white swan that met Helgi's intention, a woman captured in bird form, not a limpid, helpless creature. Her black swan was sultry, commanding. Of course the solid technique more than met the demands of the roles. How about her foutees with that Brian Boitano arm interspersed? Showy, you bet. Fearless. (If only Alonso could have seen her student.) Vilanoba was fully committed dramatically as entranced lover. What a sweetie he can be, as well as soldily watching out for his partners, in these sometimes thankless cavalier jobs.

Of course all the many other dancers were up to level as well, with a variety of corps and soloists more than able. The swan corps the most exacting I've ever seen in over 40 years of Swan in various companies, all the while invoking the sense of being avian.

My husband didn't want to come: another Swan, oh no! He thought Helgi's production was engrossing, and even enjoyed Act One, which can be overdone and too long. A very happy man. It definitely met the expectations of all levels of the audience. A reviewer nearby was clapping as happily throughout as the one-time folk.

Author:  Noreen Arnold [ Mon Feb 23, 2009 11:33 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Sunday matinee: :Feijoo and Vilanoba

[quote="fluteboo"] How about her foutees with that Brian Boitano arm interspersed? Showy, you bet.

OK - what's a "Brian Boitano" arm? I'm a long time skating fan but this one baffles me. Do you mean the arm position in his "Tano" lutz - one held straight over the head and one held low in front?

Author:  RaHir [ Mon Feb 23, 2009 11:53 am ]
Post subject: 

'Lake' needs a few refinements
Rachel Howard, Chronicle Dance Correspondent
Monday, February 23, 2009

San Francisco Ballet's new "Swan Lake, which premiered Saturday night at the War Memorial Opera House, is a mixed bag. Some of Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson's changes in the $3 million production would, in a more consistent staging, make you cheer; other tweaks evoke cringes or giggles.

This is not an unqualified triumph of visual elegance and storytelling coherence, a la Tomasson's "Nutcracker" or "Giselle." But with time and refinements, one hopes, this "Swan Lake" might grow into an emotionally satisfying vehicle for a world-class company.

That hope rests on two pillars: first, the timelessness of Lev Ivanov and Marius Petipa's original choreography, which Tomasson has not attempted to adulterate in the white swan lakeside scene (originally choreographed by Ivanov in 1895) and in the black swan pas de deux (passed down from Petipa). The second pillar worth building around is the genuine momentum Tomasson generates from that lakeside scene to the ballet's climax.

From that second-act lakeside scene on, a massive moon hovers in the sky, visible in the third-act palace between the arcs of two striking staircases. That moon is the most successful element of the scenic and costume design by Britain's Jonathan Fensom. It creates a dramatic unity that Tomasson capitalizes upon in his closing pas de deux for a penitent Siegfried and a forgiving Odette.

The new choreography, set to part of the Tchaikovsky score usually given to the corps of swans, creates a beautiful full arc to reconciliation, and Tiit Helimets and Yuan Yuan Tan were especially touching in it Saturday. Helimets is not a bravura technician, but in physique and softness of phrasing, he is a true prince. (Does any other man in the company possess such gentlemanly hands?) Tan is now equally first rate as Odette and her evil stand-in, Odile, lavishing a fluid back and time-stopping balances upon both roles.


Author:  crandc [ Mon Feb 23, 2009 1:13 pm ]
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Tempting as it is to praise Lorena Feijoo and Pierre-Francois Vilanoba (and don't forget Anthony Spaulding) I'm going to hold off until I see the ballet with another cast on Saturday - then I can do a compare, although I think Tina LeBlanc and Joan Boada will also be great, just different. (Run on sentence, sorry)

So I'll stick to some general comments, in chronological order:

The waltz in Act I was the best I've seen. Generally, Act I is what I have to sit through until the swans arrived. Great costumes too. I agree with Chronicle reviewer, however, about the pas de trois costumes.

Act II, fabulous, what else can be said?

Act III, I like it that the national variations were blended into the story. They always just seem to be stuck there for no reason but to fill time. But I think the choreography was rather dull and stock. I saw nothing that looked "Spanish" or "Russian", etc. And also, Rothbart looked too much like Rothbart. The idea is he should be disguised, as a nobleman or a knight, but he was in the identical outfit he wore at the lake. Siegfried must have been really dumb - or really dazzled by Odile - not to notice. A new twist was Rothbart whispering in Odile's ear during the Black Swan, like he was coaching her.

One thing good about both Act I and Act III was that Thomasson took out some of the extraneous matter. In many productions they just drag on and on and one endlessly, perhaps because companies want to give as many solos to as many dancers as they can.
Act IV, again, great. Interesting new ending - Swan Lake is the only ballet where the ending can change over and over depending on who is producing it. I've seen at least 6!

More after this weekend...

Author:  fluteboo [ Mon Feb 23, 2009 8:55 pm ]
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I agree about the Rothbart costume. A really stupid decision not to change his dress for the black swan scene. I forgot to mention that Anthony Spaulding danced that role on Sunday, and it was good to see more dancing for the role. However, the choreography consisted primarily of the same leaps across the stage. Spaulding did offer a fabulous menace (and fabulous balloon).

As for the Act I costumes, contrary to Howard's review, I actually enjoyed the empire line dresses, how they flowed with the movements and provided a sense of continuity. Many of the men's coats had additional fabric to add an attractive swirling effect as well, so there seemed to be a consistent theme in that choice.

The lighting didn't seem problematic on Sunday afternoon. The rock in Act II seemed real, not plastic. Perhaps there had been some tweaking after opening night.

On the other hand, I found the large staircase set for Act III too pushed forward, so it appeared the dancers did not have enough room in the national folk dances to move easily during complicated passes or jumps. I noticed how each piece followed a czadas format, a slow movement followed by a fast one. Crandc is correct concerning the lack of a strong differentiation among these. On the other hand, I can't recall a Swan where the choreography distinguished Czadas from Russian folk dances, which are very different. It's usually the costumes that set the tone, "red and black and a fan are Spanish," etc: often caricatured and lacking authenticity. This production followed the usual model.

And yes, the Boitano arm was the one where he does the lutz with his arm held straight up in the air, a move that makes the rotations more difficult. Feijoo would do that about every third foutee, and also do a triple turn just to add to the thrill. Sorry for the lack of clarity--hadn't finished my coffee when I wrote that.

Overall, the problems in the production were minor and readily fixed.

Please please report on other pairings. I wish I could see each one. Comparisons may be unfair, in that the leads vary in style and temperament. I was unsure about Feijoo doing this role, and surprised to see I could appreciate her unique presentation. Really, apart from Sallie Wilson thrust unfairly into Odette-Odile in an ABT production in the early 1960s, I can't single out the many swans I've been fortunate to view. Is that why we return? (No one could match Sallie in ABT McMillans and similar ballets, but she just trembled as Swan Queen. I think it was her only performance.) So let's not have an Oscar contest. :wink:

Author:  Francis Timlin [ Tue Feb 24, 2009 1:26 pm ]
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Janos Gereben reviews "Swan Lake" in the San Francisco Examiner:

SF Examiner

Author:  RaHir [ Thu Feb 26, 2009 5:35 pm ]
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I was lucky enough to see Tina LeBlanc and Joan Boada dance the lead roles on Tuesday. Work is preventing me from writing much that doesn't focus on high school education at the moment, but... they were lovely. And the audience was incredibly appreciative. Oh, also, Damian Smith's Rothbart had a dark chocolatey grey coat with tails that night. It was quite snazzy.

Author:  Azlan [ Sun Mar 01, 2009 8:15 pm ]
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Not sure I like the choreography all that much -- I was expecting more newness from a new production but got a lot of the same, which seemed borrowed from Tomasson's previous, already very good production of this ballet. What actually changed besides the set, video and costumes?

Speaking of costumes, does Jonathan Fensom have something for cleavage? And doesn't Von Rothbart look too skeletal and almost non-threatening without an impressive cape?

Tina LeBlanc and Joan Boada were impressive though in Tuesday near-sold out performance. Damian Smith is my favorite SFB dancer for villain roles but even he couldn't save this weak Von Rothbart -- without a cape, all he could do was prance around to affect evildom...

Author:  RaHir [ Mon Mar 02, 2009 1:59 am ]
Post subject: 

Sorry this took so long. I've been battling work deadlines and a pinched nerve in my shoulder that makes my right arm tingle when I type/mouse...

San Francisco Ballet
“Swan Lake”
Tuesday, February 24, 8PM

San Francisco Ballet is known more for its ultra-cool contemporary works than the evening-length conventional story ballets, but Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson has invested a lot of time and money into a spectacular new full-length marvel that is sure to amaze everyone. And while “Swan Lake” has seen multiple incarnations-- including traditional white feathers, a corps de ballet full of beefy men, and techno swan lake on ice--, this most recent version tastefully merges the best of the old with the swankiest of the new.

One of the most streamlined additions is the Prologue, which Tomasson has added to give more depth behind why Von Rothbart, the evil sorcerer, kidnapped and transformed Odette into a swan by day and an abducted princess by night. While short, the prologue provides succinct backstory, necessary for those new to the story or ballet and appreciated by “Swan Lake” veterans.

On Tuesday, Tina LeBlanc, who retires this May, danced the dual role of Odette/Odile with such confidence and emotion. Each step, attitude, and pirouette were so achingly perfect, yet it was her expression that hit a nerve for me. LeBlanc’s focus is never to just dance the choreography; there’s always something more, something grander and intricately divine emoting from within on stage, and this swan princess couldn’t have been anything more beautiful than on Tuesday. Her Odette blended just the right amount of shyness and affection, while Odile tipped the scales, dancing sultry and bold. Especially as Odile, LeBlanc’s fighting personality showed through, checking off 30 lovely fouettes after tearing her ACL less than two years ago.

Joan Boada matched LeBlanc well as her Siegfried (but honestly, I always wondered if Siegfried needed glasses… even in Act III, Damian Smith’s evil Von Rothbart still looked like a greasy crow, even under that gunmetal grey Lagerfeld-inspired coat. Really, Siegfried! Get a clue!). Unfortunately, Tomasson’s choreography for him, especially in the first act, didn’t give me any good reason to root for him. Sure, he’s friends with townspeople of all socio-economic levels, so kudos to him, but his solo at the end of the act left me with a feeling of “so what?” He can whip out some nice jumps, but, really, why should I care about his happiness? But the remainder of the act featured festive dancing, especially in the pas de trois, which featured lovely hops and leaps from Frances Chung. Even the couple behind me were humming as the peasants linked hands and twirled.

Probably one of the most jaw dropping scenes in ballet is Act II of “Swan Lake,” where 30 swans enter, one by one, with their arms stretched, lightly hopping in arabesque. The row of swans continues to get longer, wider, they fan out, and the stage is all of a sudden filled with a sea of feathered friends. SF Ballet’s Act II doesn’t change much of that here, but adds a massive volcanic rock that measures 56 feet long and 14 feet high placed underneath an immense, golden full moon. Combined with wispy fog, cap-like swan headdresses, sparkling and chic tutus, and strong corps de ballet (including several handfuls of advanced-level students and trainees), it all made for an intensely stunning visual extravaganza. This production was Jonathan Fensom’s first foray into ballet, and the theater-based scenic and costume designer got just about everything right and then some. I especially enjoyed his amber stairway in Act III, which effortlessly descended from the heavens, and throughout the evening, the costumes didn’t look fussy or dowdy, something that many story ballets tend to rely on these days.

This “Swan Lake” has also been brought into the 21st century, technology-wise. Sven Ortel’s projection and video design let us move from daytime to fluffy rose-hued clouds to a cloudless night with ease. Not so technically sound, though, were the flying swans that froze for a second mid-wing flap against the back scrim. But that may have been the only noticeable technical glitch in an intricate evening full of delights.

Other standouts of the evening included the petite and fun-to-watch Clara Blanco as both a cygnet and Neapolitan princess, and Frances Chung, Dana Genshaft, Garen Scribner, and Hansuke Yamamoto as the Russian during the ballroom scene. Lily Rogers also had a bang-up evening as a swan maiden and the fiery lead in the Spanish variation. And I love any chance to see Damian Smith, especially in the character roles. His Von Rothbart evoked both slimy and depressing, and when he bent over and slowly flapped his arms, swan-style, I almost felt sorry for the crazy dude. In addition, the SF Ballet Orchestra, led by conductor Paul Hoskins, sounded strong and evocatively romantic, yet at times during Acts II and IV, intentionally slower than usual. Perhaps Tomasson has a reason for this, but I can’t understand why he’d want the large corps sections to drag on.

As a whole, though, SF Ballet‘s “Swan Lake” has got a bunch of new without throwing out too much of the old. It’s a story that’s stood the test of ballet time, and this infusion of technical magic and storytelling have added a well deserved breath of fresh air.

Author:  RaHir [ Tue Mar 03, 2009 1:38 pm ]
Post subject: 

S.F.'s Ballet's 6 Swan Queens
Rachel Howard, Chronicle Dance Correspondent
Tuesday, March 3, 2009

San Francisco Ballet's "Swan Lake" is a runaway box-office hit. Helgi Tomasson's new production, which closed Sunday, filled 99 percent of the War Memorial Opera House over nine performances, playing to more than 28,000 people and taking in $2 million. That's a record for a full-evening ballet at the company.

Apparently a recession-beleaguered public is hungry for transcendent romance, and despite a less-than-stellar staging, they got it. All six Swan Queens did justice to the timeless coupling of Tchaikovsky's score and Lev Ivanov and Marius Petipa's choreography, updated by Tomasson. For a troupe whose international reputation tends to rest on stylish male dancing, the past week displayed a dazzling range of fully artistic ballerinas.

The double role of tragic Odette and the evil black swan Odile is a revelation of essential inner temperament. Lorena Feijoo is a powerful woman, and she delivered what a friend of mine dubbed "a full-on rock-star ballerina performance." What her Odette lacked in vulnerability she made up for in glamour, while her Odile burned like a blowtorch with her sharp attack. This was an interpretation of jaw-dropping stylistic extremes: She was the only Odile to show a deeply stretched renversé, that tricky turning step in which the upper body bends to meet a leg in attitude.


Author:  Catherine Pawlick [ Wed Mar 04, 2009 11:45 am ]
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Helgi Tomasson’s New “Swan Lake”
San Francisco Ballet
War Memorial Opera House
San Francisco, California
25 February 2009
By Catherine Pawlick

The composition of a classical work of art typically meets several criteria. In sculpture, the commonalities are elegant, balanced, controlled, simple lines that are aesthetically pleasing. Works of art, no matter what genre, are typically deemed classics when they meet these criteria, stem from a certain era, and/or stand the test of time. Each art has additional factors that create a standard against which all others in the genre are judged, but these basic measurements apply in most cases.

In the world of literature, the list of classical books, plays and poems hardly varies. The literary masterpieces that are deemed “classics” have withstood the test of time, and continue to please generations of new readers. We never see someone rewrite Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment”, improve Emily Bronte’s “Wuthering Heights,” or adjust and alter Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.” Rather, these works stand on their own; it would be foolish to attempt to enhance them, to enrich what is already a complete and celebrated work of art.

And yet, for some reason, in the world of classical ballet, choreographers and directors worldwide are continually compelled to improve on the tried and true classical standards of “Swan Lake.” The counterargument typically runs as follows: No one knows what the original of Swan Lake was, those notes are lost, the Petipa-Ivanov team recreated them. Yes, they did. And it is that version, the 1895 production of “Swan Lake” still performed over 100 years later by the Kirov Ballet that is the classical standard by which all others should be judged. That version is the closest to Petipa’s original that we have.

Numbers may speak volumes, but statistics can be bent to support nearly any argument, as any marketing professional will tell you. San Francisco Ballet’s latest “Swan Lake” has sold record numbers of tickets. However, any “Swan Lake” will sell tickets in a major US opera house for one simple reason: the audience wants story ballets, and story ballets are, historically what “ sell” best. The costumes may distract from classical ballet lines, and hide the legs; or they may humorously mock the dancers; the choreography may be weak, uninspired and oversimplified; the sets may be impractical or inappropriate. Do these issues matter when tickets are being sold? What is more important, to adhere to the fine traditions of the art of ballet, or make money?

As a close friend and integral part of the Bay Area dance scene, recently suggested, “ Maybe ignorance is bliss.” Upon reflection, he is right. For those who haven’t seen the Kirov or the Bolshoi dance “Swan Lake” , for those who have only the Bay Area offerings as a basis for their evaluation, they may be thrilled. But that would be like eating a Hershey’s kiss and raving about it when you’ve never tasted Godiva chocoloate.
Helgi Tomasson, the current artistic director of San Francisco Ballet, has put his own signature on this “new and improved” adaptation of Petipa’s “Swan Lake”, currently playing at the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House. However, in many ways it is far from new or improved. Sadly, for those never exposed to the classical Russian version, this “improved edition” may be entertaining. But to anyone who has experienced the standards of classicism, Tomasson’s version fails on several accounts.

Before approaching the choreography and costumes however, there is the issue of credit for the creation. The playbill lists the choreographer as Helgi Tomasson, and then notes that the choreography from Act II and the national dances in Act III is not his own. In Tomasson’s version, Act II is the White Act – the heart and soul of this ballet of all ballets. In Act II – contrary to what the program indicates -- he has altered the choreography for Rothbart, for the four Large Swans (instead, we have two swans with disappointingly simplified movements), and for much of the corps de ballet. This is Petipa à la Tomasson. What remains then, as purely Tomasson’s work? All of Act I and Act IV. However, the fourth act is only the drawn-out ending of Act III (no intermission separates the last two acts). This means that less than half of the entire ballet holds Mr. Tomasson’s signature; the rest is re-purposed Petipa, and is neither here nor there. He has adjusted the classical choreography to make it easier to dance, and in doing so, the steps are no longer Petipa’s, but are diluted and in many instances, unmusical.

The costumes – which set the tone, the era, and the mood for most ballets – were far from sumptuous and unclear in their references to time and place. As Act I begins, the Prince and peasants cavort in front of the large gate. The fact that historically, nobility would not leave the palace grounds without an entourage, and when or if they did, they would not do so to celebrate with the peasants, here, is simply ignored. His jacket has a taste of the military; the buildings behind him could be Parisian or Viennese, it is difficult to tell. The empire-waist dresses given to the ladies have skirts that reach below the calves, hiding the very thing we come to witness at the ballet: the choreography and legwork of the dancers. The streetlamp appears Parisian; the costumes look 19th Century England; the stonework could be French or Russian. We’re in an unclear country and time period, adding confusion when we’ve barely begun.

The Queen Mother later emerges from behind the palace gate to give the Prince his crossbow birthday gift. She too, is unaccompanied, and retires to the palace shortly thereafter. The whole feeling is one of unconnected dots. Why did she come outside? Unaccompanied? Could the crossbow not wait? The gaps in logic in this improved libretto are numerous.

The first quarter hour is simply pantomime as the composer’s impossibly gorgeous score inspire you to imagine sweeping waltzes and high lifts. For those who have in fact studied dance history, the Polonaise is meant to be an aristocratic dance. Peasants would never dance to a polonaise, but in Act I we watch five peasant couples performing watered-down choreography to this music, steps that do not make proper use of the music’s grandiosity, which was conducted admirably (despite all the musical rearrangements) by Martin West.

Then there are the hats. Think 1930’s Thoroughly Modern Millie Fringe-Meets-Leftover Snowflake Caps. The look is distracting and humorous. It was difficult to take even Odile seriously when Lorena Feijoo’s face and nose appeared the spitting image of Liza Minelli when shadowed by the black swan cap of this production. The white swan caps are identical, and cover the corps de ballet’s heads in an unflattering manner.

Pierre Francois Vilanoba danced the Prince alongside Lorena Feijoo’s Odette/Odile. I’d been assured by my companion that Vilanoba is a prince’s prince. However, in this performance, while aptly tall and poised he barely left the ground in his jumps, and looked relieved to manage basic double pirouettes. Siegfried’s role in “Swan Lake” entails much more partnering than dancing; nonetheless, one would expect the dancer given this role to excel in the brief dancing interludes; Vilanoba barely made it.

Feijoo deserves kudos for enduring the swan caps and managing to deliver a solid performance despite the distraction of unclear setting, new costumes and adjusted score. However, none of her movement suggested lithe Swan Queen, and the emotional connection between her and Siegfried was nearly nonexistent. Feijoo’s fouettés included a triple on every third rotation for the first sixteen counts, the sole moment of bravura in the evening. Her performance was not breathtaking –indeed she is far from the ideal swan, and would be much better suited as Kitri or a role with more spice -- but she did not fail to execute technically. In this case, it seems she did the best she could with what she was given.

The single theme that the libretto of “Swan Lake” addresses is thwarted love and romance. In the White Act (no matter what numeral is used to refer to it), Odette and Siegfried fall in love. In the last Act, Siegfried’s love for Odette ultimately saves her, or, as in this production, sends them together back into the lake. But that male-female connection is paramount to the story. Here it was sadly missing: By Act IV, it was difficult to sense any loss on the Prince’s behalf, or understand why he cared about the betrayal. That meant that the ending didn’t leave the emotional impression that it should leave. As the lovers dive into the Lake, Rothbart is dead and supposedly the spell is broken, but it isn’t clear that the double suicide has saved the swan corps from their fate.

This reviewer has witnessed “Swan Lakes” that bring tears to the audience’s eyes and feature ballerinas born to dance the role. Tomasson’s version doesn’t achieve what the ballet is meant to. It brought only relief at the final curtain, and apparently significant ticket sales. As that wise man once said, "Ignorance is bliss."

Author:  DavidH [ Wed Mar 04, 2009 3:14 pm ]
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But that would be like eating a Hershey’s kiss and raving about it when you’ve never tasted Godiva chocoloate.

With all due respect Catherine, the last time I saw the Bolshoi perform Swan Lake it wasn't even close to the quality of a Hershey's Kiss, much less Godiva. :?

Author:  Catherine Pawlick [ Thu Mar 05, 2009 10:23 pm ]
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hi DavidH,

I understand -- and even the Bolshoi isn't above mistakes or off-nights. At least though, in terms of production quality, my personal observations have shown that some of the versions that come from European tradition *tend to be* a little more easily digestible when everything is in place -- casting, costumes, etc. Every company has better/worse cast lists, and off nights, unfortunately. But a tight, consistent production, for me, makes a world of difference. And I can't say that was the case with this "new and improved" SL in SF.

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