Swan Lake
Photo: Erik Tomasson.

Swan Lake

San Francisco Ballet's full cargo of earth, wind and fire.

San Francisco Ballet
War Memorial Opera House
Helgi Tomasson, Artistic Director
Mar. 31-Apr. 15, 2017, Reviewed Mar. 31, 2017
sfballet.org

“It’s complicated,” Prince Siegfried (Joseph Walsh) might be inclined to confess, if asked to sum up his erotic inclinations. He celebrates his birthday while sharing a carousing bromance with his tutor, Wolfgang (Val Caniparoli), and appeasing his meddling Queen Mother (Anita Paciotti) “just enough.” He sincerely thanks her for the gilded crossbow she gives him, but establishes boundaries by refusing to court any of the several eligible princesses she has invited to his party. When it comes to mothers and sons, this 1877 classic still resonates in 2017.

The prince hopes that a solitary lakeside hunt, crossbow in hand, will distract him from his ambivalence. Instead, the lake is where his troubles multiply by a factor of two, and in black and white. There, he spies a magnificent if troubled white swan (Maria Kochetkova as Odette-Odile). Von Rothbart (Daniel Deivison-Oliveira), a very angry bird whose maladaptive motives have been analyzed for a century-and-a-half (resulting in no definitive diagnosis), has cast a spell that turned a young woman into this swan. In an exploratory pas de deux, she succeeds in stealing Siegfried’s heart. It’s a lot to sort out for both prince and swan, but the coping mechanisms are lush. There is a grandiloquent if somewhat truncated Tchaikovsky score, borne of the composer’s own losses and conducted handsomely by Martin West; costumes and rangy sets by Jonathan Fensom; a seasoned cadre of soloist and principal-level supporting cast members; and a limpid, yet indefatigable corps de ballet, who give their all to Helgi Tomasson’s 2009 version of the work.

In their charming Pas de Trois during the opening scene outside the palace, Dores André, Angelo Greco, and Sasha De Sola cast a spell of their own over the audience, where André and De Sola build a nest for Greco’s virtuosic solo. The Peasant dance lends its seal to the ballet’s study in dualities, with contrasting intrepid dancing by the men and a lilting interpretation by the women.

Walsh’s noncommittal Siegfried slices through the folderol with a wing-to-wing—span solo, unleashing a driven persona from under the layer of brooding and brume. It’s a shame that Siegfried is called upon to dance so infrequently, because like Kochetkova’s most able partners Walsh possesses a physicality and technical prowess similar to hers. His relationship with the music is as intimate as is hers. He is there for her on the exact count, note, and contact point with the floor or summit of a lift. As each pas de deux ends with Odette or Odile, he incorporates some subtlety of each, as if balletic fission twins his double dilemma with that of his swans.

As sometimes occurs, Kochetkova grows into her role in direct relationship to the music. When she first appears as Odette, there is concern that she is prematurely leaving a channel open to Odile, but as the droplet harp music begins, and by the time the heart-rending violin solo (Cordula Merks) ends, she emerges from each interlude as the fully fragile, love-struck, if distracted Odette.

The Cygnets (Isabella De Vivo, Jahna Frantziskonis, Julia Rowe, and Natasha Sheehan) drill through the complexities of head, feet, and arm perambulations with vigor and rectitude. Jennifer Stahl and Wan Ting Zhao enchant as Swan Maidens, Stahl bringing a pliant Spanish back to her Act II Spanish Princess. In Neapolitan Princess, Frantziskonis pairs jubilantly with Esteban Hernandez, both of who will advance to soloist rank at the end of the season. André and De Sola match up with James Sofranko and Hansuke Yamamoto for a stylized Russian Princesses, Yamamoto’s multiple tours topping the divertissement with a rousing finish.

Odile pulls Siegfried into the maelstrom she cannily creates under Von Rothbart’s hand, from the moment of her Act III black swan party girl entrance, to her final hurried and worried departure. In Act IV, Odette, in a pas de deux shimmering with entreaty and forgiveness, welcomes Siegfried back from the dark side. Von Rothbart dies, and the spell is forever broken.

The front-of-curtain sequence that shows Von Rothbart turning the girl into a swan, represented by a screened image of a water fowl that conjures up the Aflac duck, does a disservice to otherwise lofty production values. A drop curtain showing text that explains the magic spell could offer a more regal annotation. Because they draw attention away from eyes so key to the swan physiognomy, the wigs work against dancers with delicate features, and should be shorn accordingly. On the other hand, it’s a relief to see a Von Rothbart free of the namesake traditional red wig, and unburdened of the standard-issue overbuilt costume, affording Deivison-Oliveira greater license to inspire terror and pathos. 

With an intrepid corps de ballet as its ballast, and a superb cast of soloists and principals, this season’s launch carries a full cargo of earth, wind, and fire into a mesmerizing Swan Lake.

Toba Singer

Toba Singer, author of “Fernando Alonso, the Father of Cuban Ballet” (University Press of Florida 2013), and “First Position: a Century of Ballet Artists” (Praeger 2007), writes for international dance journals and websites, and has served as an advisor to the San Francisco Museum of Performance and Design. She was the University Press of Florida author representative at the 2013 Miami International Book Fair. “Fernando Alonso, the Father of Cuban Ballet” was nominated for the Latin American Student Association Bryce Award, the de la Torre Research and Dance Scholars Award, and the Commonwealth Club California Book Award.