If you’re looking for sheer technical perfection, you cannot excel or exceed the newly revamped version of the Helgi Tomasson “Swan Lake” that opened at the S.F. Ballet.

From that first ingratiating flow of 30 swans in an arrow-straight line (opening the so-called White Act) to the lovers ultimately hurling themselves lakeward in a Russian Liebestod, this is the most romantic story ballet of them all. In between, the lines of swans were as letter-perfect as the cadet drill teams at West Point on visitor’s day.

The revamped Jonathan Fensom production offered a whole new look to act one, now moved from the luxurious ballroom to the grounds in front of the wrought-iron palace gates, giving a more populist look, in tune with certain politicians’ mindset this year. The revelers there are dressed more like burgers than courtiers—an effective shift of emphasis, appropriate to 21st century America.

Yet on opening night, this was a flawed show, devoid of the passion, drama and heart-break inherent in this nonpareil fairy tale/tragedy. Has choreographer (and SFB chief) Helgi Tomasson lost all interest in the dramatic side of this beloved spectacle—the ardor, the tenderness, the fragility?

The tall blond hero Siegfried (Tiit Helimets) was content to be a boring golden-boy totem. As the white swan queen Odette, Yuan Yuan Tan was a superlative technician in every step, in every hovering moment she spent on pointe; yet in manner she was supremely ascetic, as if caught up in an Asperger’s Syndrome breakout among the swans. She has enviable slender floating arms, when pushed back suggesting feathered wings. But there was no fluttery fear of the stranger-hunter, nor quivering magnetism, nor visible love. And playing the (bad) black swan Odile, she left all the villainy to the swan enchanter-collector Rothbart, expertly played by a crafty, athletic Alexander Reneff-Olson, who was the theatrical highlight of the night. Having just joined the SFB corps de ballet less than two years ago, this local product was enjoying his biggest role ever.

But, give them credit: The audience went wild with a standing O. after the final curtain.

Various acts and two short intermissions brought the length down to two and a half hours. (The whole score runs over three hours of music, unperformable unless you pay costly overtime to 100+ performers.) The music of course is one of Tchaikovsky’s best, fortified by Riccardo Drigo’s brass-drum-cymbal splashiness in the Black Swan scene—orchestrations provided by Drigo for the 1895 posthumous revised score, and for almost all reprises since. The ballet’s composer, to be entirely accurate, is Tchaikovsky-Drigo, though Tchaikovsky did the lion’s share.

Martin West’s pit orchestra was sensitive, dynamic, impeccable.

National dances dominated the courtly scenes, with performers moving freely despite the elaborate regal costumes and head-dresses. Noteworthy in the “Peasant Pas de Trois” was Dores André, promoted to principal just last year. The best Queen Mother I have seen since ABT’s Lucia Chase, Anita Paciotti, carried off the pantomime all night long convincingly.The Oaklander joined the SFB in 1968, 48 years ago.

BALLET NOTES—The emotional cold spell of the opener may be isolated. Reliable reports from performances 2 and 3 were emotionally far more fulfilling….Scenic/costume designer Fensom, who was brilliant in this 2016 redo of the 2009 SFB “Swan,” had never designed for ballet before, only theater. The newcomer’s biggest challenge was not palaces, changing skylines, airborne flapping-swan silhouettes and wrought-iron gates, but rather offering elegant court costumes still allowing multi-flex dancers full mobility.

The nefarious Black Swan of Odile, providing a delicious contrasting part to the Odette ballerina as well as fatal deceit for the duped hero, has long reigned as one of the stirring highlights of “Swan Lake.” Yet the first well-documented appearance of the guile-fueled Black Swan is from 1941, nearly a half century after the 1895 production in Russia. Previously, the woman had merely been the daughter/accomplice of Rothbart, not that seeming identical twin of Odette.

Only snippets of the early St. Petersburg choreography by Petipa and Ivanov are still known. Tomasson neatly crafted most of the dances, with Petipa-Ivanov only retained for Act Two, and the Black Swan Pas de Deux, the latter with Odile’s famous rapid 32 fouetté spins that leave many a prima ballerina on the verge of exhaustion and oxygen deprivation. Tan managed it, but with very little to spare.

San Francisco Ballet in Tomasson’s “Swan Lake,” music of Tchaikovsky. Through Feb. 28. For info: (415) 865-2000, or go online.

©Paul Hertelendy 2016
Paul Hertelendy has been covering the dance and modern-music scene in the San Francisco Bay Area with relish — and a certain amount of salsa — for years.
These critiques appearing weekly (or sometimes semi-weekly, but never weakly) will focus on dance and new musical creativity in performance, with forays into books (by authors of the region), theater and recordings by local artists as well.

Week of Feb. 22-29, 2016
Vol. 18, No. 48

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