Nikisha Fogo and Aaron Robison in Tomasson's Swan Lake // © Lindsay Thomas
San Francisco Ballet in Tomasson's Swan Lake // © Lindsay Thomas

Swan Lake San Francisco Ballet 2024

Written by:
Toba Singer
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Nikisha Fogo is the rare dancer in whose interpretation you can distinguish nearly every investment by teachers, ballet masters, and coaches, along with the serious commitment she has made to her artistic life. I saw this phenom for the first time two seasons ago, when she danced the role of Mirtha, Queen of the Wilis in “Giselle.” Contributions from others notwithstanding, she created her Mirtha on terms that were exclusively hers. Here, again, you see investments, such as make-up artist Michael Ward’s swan eye orbs she trains unblinkingly on the audience. There is the head she inclines to listen to her heart, the legs that tremble against the evening’s dark winds, impulses teased out under the mastery of Julio Boca’s expert coaching. It is one thing to possess arms like Muriel Maffre’s that extend into the blue beyond and that can do anything you will them to, and another to have Fogo’s. They are of normal length but are ennobled by a well-tuned spine that invites them and the spirit they release, to summon, punctuate, describe and appraise: in short, to communicate through a metastasis of the spirit.

Aaron Robison, Fogo’s Sigfried, is a perfect match for her attributes. Just as it has been said that Alicia Alonso didn’t have to “act” Giselle because she was Giselle, Robison is the Sigfried we know, love, and worry about. His conflicts are those we fear to acknowledge. We see them in the birthday party scene in the tension that confects his Sunday manners as he pals around with his best friend, greets the guests, and defers to elders. It explodes in imploring grand jeté just outside the palace gate. A powerful and genuine confidence replaces it in bountiful renversé as he decides for himself, under the cover of darkening skies, to take his new gift of a crossbow and arrow to the lake. There, the Sigfried we don’t yet know or recognize, freed from the prison of the expectations of others, encounters Odette, a white swan, nearly radiant, were she not distanced by a tissue of melancholy. In a simple but heart-rending pas de deux, we see this pair dance their way out of the agony of the parochial daylight world. Robison faces off with Von Rothbart, who has been hiding in the shadows all the while. Sigfried loses. Odette withdraws, defeated.

Meanwhile, back at the palace, Von Rothbart squires Odile, all in black. It’s a spectacular tachycardic entrance á deux. Von Rothbart introduces Sigfried to Odile, and she wastes no time positioning herself to sweep him off his fleet feet. Yet, even after dispatching 32 fouetté with Robison matching her energy in jubilant séconde, we see the quality in Odile that mirrors Odette’s poignancy, that place where their axes cross. It proposes even more possibilities that arise from the smoke and mirrors the darkness hides across the territory between the lake and the palace.

When we see Swan Lake as children, it is a romantic speed-dating story of good and evil, the dualities unequivocally black and white, the lock-step divertissements cautionary illustrations of social differentiations by class, and in this situation, by species. When we see it in our early twenties, we discern the variations in the themes, tempo and orchestration of the Tchaikovsky score. When this process of life-long learning takes us further along the paths of our own lives, our now-mature selves may ask: are these dualities also about our own persistent shadow personalities? If Odile is Odette’s and Von Rothbart is Sigfried’s, are their respective parents co-conspirators who transmit social expectations to ensure their survival under conditions that forbid any break with hide-bound tradition?

The young San Francisco Ballet School students are untroubled by any such questions. Even when they go unchaperoned, they exhibit a confident purchase in their ensemble work. The corps de ballet is as disciplined and luminous a bevy as you can find in any wildlife sanctuary. The Pas de Trois by the ebullient Esteban Hernandez, mischievous Isabella Devivo, and glistening Katherine Barkman makes for a joyous romp, and Cavan Conley and Julia Rowe deliver a quick-witted, continentally flavorful Neopolitan.

A winning team has turned this Swan Lake into its most human iteration. Even the audience broke a few social conventions during the standing ovation, with camera phones capturing the dancers’ révérence for each other, the audience, and the orchestra, conducted mightily by Martin West.

by Toba Singer

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