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San Francisco Ballet Swan Lake: Levels of Stylishness High

San Francisco company’s ballet“Swan Lake” had new change. Instead it looks polite, veiled, embryonic, unfulfilled.

Levels of stylishness are high. The elegance of feet and legs is world class; the corps de ballet is admirably drilled; the principal dancers are lucid, strong and individual; there is a variety of mature ballerinas; admirable soloists abound. The company’s music director and principal conductor, Martin West, elicits good standards of orchestral playing. The level of male dancing seems higher than that at City Ballet; and even Ballet Theater’s constellation of male stars does not stop San Francisco Ballet from appearing a haven of yet greater refinement.

This season is Helgi Tomasson’s 25th anniversary as its artistic director. My first visit to San Francisco was to see his first “Swan Lake” in 1988; last year he presented this new one, which is entirely inferior to its predecessor. Relocating the ballet to the early 19th century, retelling central elements of its story, it simply doesn’t do justice to the potential of “Swan Lake.” What’s more saddening is that it doesn’t give these dancers the release they need to become important artists.

It is neither the first nor the second staging of this ballet to provide a prelude that shows the innocent heroine Odette’s transformation into a swan thanks to the wicked von Rothbart. (The Royal Ballet tried this in the 1960s, then quickly dropped it. Ballet Theater’s notorious version remains unrevised.) Like those, this prelude fails to explain why von Rothbart allows Odette to turn back into a human being at night, though that’s how we see her later in the ballet. It is probably the first, however, to make von Rothbart look like a dirty old man waiting on a park bench until this artless girl tempts him into action.

The ballet ends with the love-death double suicide of Odette and Prince Siegfried: good. Then we see two swans fly across the moon. The lovers are reunited beyond death. But as swans. Think about it: it’s actually like “The Princess and the Frog” (where the heroine kisses the frog and finds that she has become a frog too). Do I need to point out that poor Odette has spent the whole ballet trying to be released from her daytime swan form but now, after taking her own life, is apparently saddled with being a swan 24/7? Would Siegfried — who in Act III falls in love with the very human-looking Odile because he thinks she’s Odette — have committed suicide if he had thought both of them would be swans forever?

The moon is almost half the height of the stage, and for some reason is visible (indeed dominant) throughout the ballroom third act. Scenery and costumes are by the British designer Jonathan Fensom, who has managed to take several of the least appealing ideas from the current Royal Ballet version (designed by Yolanda Sonnabend, notably its fluffy white swan headdresses). We’re in a muddled version of the 19th century: roughly Napoleonic, but with the prince’s royal mother still wearing the powdered hairstyles of pre-1789 days (you could keep several beehives in hair like that), the tutor Wolfgang looking like Mr. Pickwick, and hordes of peasants dancing with improbable happiness and neatness just outside the front gates of the palace.

The original “Swan Lake” was set in the Middle Ages, and Tchaikovsky’s music is steeped in the Wagnerian medievalist Romanticism of “Lohengrin.” There were unhappy peasants at any point in history, but these merry ones outside the palace are particularly unbelievable. And it is especially daft to have the queen make a special public emergence from the palace gates and then conduct a private royal conversation with her son (“It’s time you got married”) with all the plebs watching.

Worse follows. In Act III Mr. Tomasson has the foreign princesses who are candidates for Siegfried’s hand in marriage all perform the national dances of their countries with their retainers. This means that each one carries on with a male partner in ways that would disqualify her from the consideration of any self-respecting royal family; the Spanish princess actually chucks one of her men under the chin.

The program attributes the choreography solely to Mr. Tomasson. Well, he has eliminated or altered many of the traditional features of the well-known 1895 choreography by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov — nowhere for the better. But still almost all the choreography for Odette, Odile, Siegfried and the swan maidens is very much along the lines of Petipa-Ivanov. It particularly recalls the Kirov’s version of the text, which I find lacks much of the detail of the Royal Ballet’s, especially in the dances for Odette and Odile.

In terms of pure dance style there was most to admire in Gennadi Nedvigin (Thursday’s Prince Siegfried to Maria Kochetkova’s Odette), Vanessa Zahorian (Friday’s Odette, partnered by Taras Domitro) and Sarah Van Patten (Saturday afternoon’s Odette, partnered by Vadim Solomakha). Frances Chung, Nutnaree Pipit-Suksun and Pascal Molat brought distinction to the undistinguished choreography of the Act I pas de trois. But the Odettes showed no inner conflict; they advanced and retreated from Siegfried with unaltered dynamics. Beautifully lyrical, ideally tasteful, not for a moment were they haunted, divided, anguished.

Doesn’t San Francisco Ballet realize this is a tragedy about a heroine’s supreme need? And that the prince recognizes that in her he has at last found his destiny? None of these three princes ever seemed to say, “My fate cries out,” though Tchaikovsky gives him many moments to say so. Mr. Tomasson actually eliminates one of the work’s most poignant episodes: Odette’s return to the lake in Act IV and her first attempt at suicide. Deliberately he scales down what is surely the most famous role in ballet.

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