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."