Whilst we much enjoy the range of contemporary and 20th century works for which San Francisco Ballet has a fine reputation, every so often it’s wonderful to see a good old-fashioned Tchaikovsky classic – and Swan Lake will do beautifully, thank you.
Swan Lake wasn’t always so highly thought of or appreciated, though. Its first performance – by the Bolshoi in 1877 – was a complete failure. Choreography was by Julius Reisinger, but he – accustomed to creating ballets to uncomplicated rhythms and tuneful pieces – was unable to cope with Tchaikovsky’s symphonic-style score. Rescue came in the form of Marius Petipa, then Premier maître de ballet of the Saint Petersburg Imperial Theatres, and his assistant Lev Ivanov, and together they worked their legendary magic on an already magical score, and Swan Lake premiered successfully in February 1895 at the Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg.
Helgi Tomasson’s Swan Lake is a world away from the pomp and grandeur of Imperial Russia, but it’s an elegant production, containing sufficient elements of the original to satisfy traditionalists, yet introducing some fresh and pleasing ideas as well. Tomasson has placed it in a Georgian-style setting, retaining some of the Petipa and Ivanov choreography, and introducing some of his own, but never straying too far from the original.
Heading the cast on opening night were Yuan Yuan Tan and Tiit Helimets. In the dual role of Odette/Odile, Tan delighted her fans with her technical virtuosity, and Helimets, as Prince Siegfried, demonstrated once again his commanding stage presence. Tall, strong and elegant, with an impressive technique, he was a gallant, attentive and ardent partner. As Von Rothbart, Alexander Reneff-Olson put in a fine performance, hurtling across the stage in a succession of spectacular leaps.
In Act I, Tchaikovsky’s gorgeous Waltz was given the full treatment it deserves – flowing choreography, beautifully danced by six couples, and in the Pas de Trois, Dores André, Taras Domitro and Sasha de Sola were delightful.
The national dances in Act III were a pleasure to watch, the Spanish, Hungarian, Neapolitan and Russian princesses, and their entourages, giving spirited and stylish performances. It was good to see the prominence given to the Russian dance which, for some reason, often gets overlooked, despite the music containing some of the most beautiful passages in Tchaikovsky’s score.
The production also scored well on the other time-honored points of note – the precision of the rows of Swan Maidens, and the immaculate footwork of the Cygnets – resplendent in sparkling white, as per tradition – with the exception of the somewhat unflattering feathered caps. Otherwise, Jonathan Fensom’s costumes and sets (for Acts I and III) were lovely, creating the impression of water-coloured etchings, in pale or muted shades. The lakeside backdrop was simple and dramatic.
The San Francisco Ballet Orchestra, under Martin West – now the winners of a second Grammy Award – was absolutely splendid, handling Tchaikovsky’s sumptuous score with lyricism, tenderness, dramatic flourishes and sweeping grandeur.
San Francisco Ballet’s ‘Swan Lake’ runs at the War Memorial Opera House until February 26th.
San Francisco Ballet press notes
Victoria and Albert Museum