SF Ballet spreads its wings in exquisite ‘Swan Lake’

Photo of Swan Lake
Erik Tomasson/Courtesy

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“Swan Lake” is much more than feathers and flair. The famed ballet, scored by Tchaikovsky, captivates as a bewitching story of love and tragedy, a consecration of aesthetic and art. Fantasy and magic take center stage, challenging ballet to be its most beautiful. In the final program of its spring season, the San Francisco Ballet feasts on spectacle and splendor — a quasi Last Supper as the company bids adieu to Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson.

In the gilded War Memorial Opera House, the San Francisco Ballet raised its curtain on Princess Odette, played by the lustrous and deliquescent Principal Dancer Yuan Yuan Tan. While several productions open on Prince Siegfried, the addition of prologue is a relic of Tomasson’s 2009 production, and it recenters the story through Odette, rather than her Prince.

In her white dress, Odette takes a stroll near a lake, gliding on girlish charm until she is ambushed by the wicked sorcerer Von Rothbart (Alexander Reneff-Olson). Reneff-Olson swoops in with plumes and aplomb, a delightful menace to Tan’s picture of innocence. Von Rothbart’s curse transforms Odette into a swan, reflected through transfixing shadow work that set the tone for a bewitching night of beauty and splendor.

Time melts after the prologue, and a new day dawns in Act 1 as Prince Siegfried (the charming Tiit Helimets) celebrates his 21st birthday in the town square. With locked palace gates perched upstage, the set felt like a page from a storybook, exuding classic provincial charm and welcoming audiences into the town’s public sphere. Throngs of bonnets and empire waistlines have a lark over the orchestra’s robust waltz, and the dancers in the “pas de trois” delighted with their playful chemistry and difficult footwork.

Yet, the arrival of Seigfried’s mother ruffles a few feathers. After gifting him a crossbow, the queen tells her son that they are hosting a lavish ball tomorrow night where he must find a suitable woman to marry; a saddened Seigfried, armed with his new present, catches sight of flying swans and heads toward the forest. Under violet nightfall, Seigfried’s andante solo ached as a marvel of melancholy and clean form. Helimets appeared inexhaustible, as if fueled by the orchestra’s lush melodic contour.  

While Helimets dialed up the noble melodrama, Act 2 makes it obvious why Tomasson channeled the fairytale through Odette. As Queen of the Swans, Tan glowed in evocative and ethereal resplendence. Strings trembled as a scared Odette skirted away from Seigfried, and the famous leitmotif swelled against the light flutter of Tan’s entrechats. Instead of moving through her, Tchaikovsky’s score swirled and sailed for her. While Odette inched toward tragedy, Tan enriched her character with tender pathos and the warmth of starry-eyed romance.

An opalescent moon hung over the stage, but the swans radiated a far more potent celestial magic. The cygnets scintillated onstage in poetic precision, twinkling in white tutus. Elegance washed over every line from the ballerinas’ graceful ports de bras to their sauté-arabesques.

Swans Julia Rowe, Norika Matsuyama, Ellen Rose Hummel and Isabella DeVivo soared through the famed and formidable “Danse des petits cygnes.” The rigorous pas de chats require discipline to move in sync and risk devolving into a tangle of limbs. At the War Memorial Opera House, however, the dancers made demanding choreography look deceptively natural, adding a feather to their caps.

The mystic lakeside dissolved, and a string of hopeful noblewoman hailing from different European countries enlivened the Queen’s sumptuous ballroom with dances evoking their respective homelands. Yet, the air soured with fowl play upon the arrival of Von Rothbart and his daughter Odile, also played by Tan.

The principal dancer gave the bad egg a fresh edge, and her fouetté turns struck like lightning in Odile and Seigfried’s pas de deux. As the drama crested to the ballet’s epic finale, “Swan Lake” transcended its own expectation of excellence.

Oozing with an intangible, irresistible glamor, the San Francisco Ballet’s “Swan Lake” took opulence as an opportunity. The company has thrived under Tomasson’s wing, and “Swan Lake” lined all its ducks in a row to deliver a stunning, impassioned farewell.

Contact Maya Thompson at [email protected].