SWAN LAKE at San Francisco Ballet Gives a Welcome Alternative to Revisit an All-Time Traditional

The corps de ballet shimmers in the moonlight
in San Francisco Ballets production of Helgi Tomasson’s Swan Lake

The San Francisco Ballet ends its hugely successful 2021 digital season by revisiting the classic Swan Lake in a production choreographed by Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson in 2009 and videotaped in 2016. Swan Lake is a particular favorite of mine so I was sincerely looking forward to seeing it again and would like to report that the SFB is finishing its season on a high level. Unfortunately, that’s not quite the case here. Instead, it was a bit like meeting a long-lost friend who is in a difficult situation. It’s still nice to see them, but they seem to be missing part of the spring in their crotch.

While some of the usual virtues of a swan lake are loud and clear in this video recording – the soaring, turbulent Tchaikovsky score, a first-class ballerina who takes on the devilishly difficult double role of Odette-Odile, the exuberant foursome, from interlocking cygnets – this is the only program in the entire SFB season that suffers most from the digital format. The camera lens tends to flatten and condense the expanse of the War Memorial Opera House’s stage, so that even if it has dozens of dancers in it, the image looks somehow malnourished and strangely pale. The camera is also unable to capture the full contrast of the white swan costumes against the dark backdrops, reducing the nuance and artistry of the SFB’s stunning corps de ballet and registering them more as white silhouettes. This is particularly problematic in the rightly famous Act II, in which the stage is full of swans blowing across the stage in ever-changing geometric formations. Here they often read more than a kind of indistinct white mass. And in close-ups, the strong white versus black visual motif unfortunately highlights even the slightest unsynchronized movement. A single swan moves an arm an inch too high and suddenly your gaze is drawn to a tiny inconsistency that you would never notice in the theater.

OK, enough focus on what is slightly different. On the plus side, we still get a lush staging of an incredibly fun ballet. All the famous set pieces are here – this perfectly choreographed second “white act” with its wonderfully moving portrayal of improbable love, the exciting third act BLACK SWAN pas de deux with its famous 32 fouettes for the ballerina and the dramatic resolution that brings with it Ballet to its painfully romantic ending. Tomasson’s most effective inventions are a spirited pas de trois, which gives the otherwise promenade-heavy Act I the much-needed real dance, and an introspective solo for the prince before he sets off to shoot some swans.

BWW Review: SWAN LAKE at the San Francisco Ballet provides a welcome opportunity to revisit an all-time classicPrince Siegfried (Tiit Helimets) and Odette (Yuan Yuan Tan) fall deeply in love
in San Francisco Ballets production of Helgi Tomasson’s Swan Lake

The sets and costumes by designer Jonathan Fensom, which have a kind of 18th century style and meet a contemporary, chic atmosphere, are a hit or miss. For example, the swans all wear identical feather caps, which look quite stylish, but tend to destroy the sense of individuality among the corps women. There are some big D-dramatic set pieces like a rocky promontory on the lake and a dizzying curved staircase to infinity, which are conspicuous, but not as impressive as they live in the theater.

The performances are sometimes beautiful, sometimes exciting, and sometimes less than ideal. The climax of the first act is the already mentioned Pas de Trois, which is beautifully danced by Dores André, Sasha De Sola and Taras Domitro. The trio precisely shapes the dynamics of the central plot between man and woman, but without any indication of the coming darkness. This is just a fun lark about nothing but the joy of dancing. André and De Sola are both victorious and distinctive and scurry through their difficult footwork with buoyancy and verve. Domitros surprises with the perfect verticality of his rotating jumps. Equally attractive is the famous (and often parodied) Act II dance for the 4 Cygnets, here Ellen Rose Hummel, Lauren Parrot, Julia Rowe and Emma Rubinowitz. The women with crossed arms move skillfully as a unit through the complicated and lightning-fast choreography. Every toe point, every leg extension, every turn of the head is just right for you, even in this unforgiving medium of video. It’s totally exhilarating.

There are also some nice succinct appearances in the Act III special dances, especially the Francisco Mungamba and Lonnie weeks in the Spanish number and Jahna Frantziskonis and Esteban Hernandez in the Neopolitan. They all bring a wonderful freshness and brio in their short variations.

BWW Review: SWAN LAKE at the San Francisco Ballet provides a welcome opportunity to revisit an all-time classicOdile (Yuan Yuan Tan) is happy about her successful seduction of Prince Siegfried (Tiit Helimets)
in San Francisco Ballets production of Helgi Tomasson’s Swan Lake

The leading roles of Odette-Odile and Prince Siegfried are played by two of the SFB’s best dancers, Yuan Yuan Tan and Tiit Helimets. They dance well together here, but don’t quite reach the heights we know they are capable of – for example, as in the delicate, haunting pas de deux of Tomasson’s 7 for Eight earlier this season. I always had the feeling that they were just holding back a little and not completely surrendering to the moment. Helimets also struggled noticeably in some of their bigger brave moments in the BLACK SWAN pas de deux. Tan makes a beautiful Odette (the white swan) with her endlessly expressive arms and supple torso (I love it when she passes out and bends over to the floor!), Although I never bought her fully tragic romance of character. Her best moments were Odile (the BLACK SWAN), where her movement was almost aggressive, crisp and angular. The way she mocks the prince by tearing through a series of quicksilver steps to suddenly, seemingly forever, balance on one toe is nothing short of heartbreaking.

BWW Review: SWAN LAKE at the San Francisco Ballet provides a welcome opportunity to revisit an all-time classicOne of many fascinating moments with the Corps de Ballet
in San Francisco Ballets production of Helgi Tomasson’s Swan Lake

While this video rendering of Swan Lake is less than a total triumph, there is still some good news on the horizon. The company has announced that Swan Lake will join its personal 2022 season, which will also celebrate Tomasson’s final season as the Leading SFB after an amazingly successful 37 years at the top. His Swan Lake really has to be seen live, and I can’t wait until we have the chance to experience it as it should be again.

(All photos by Erik Tomasson)

The production of Swan Lake at the San Francisco Ballet can be streamed until June 9, 2021. For more information and tickets, visit or call (415) 865-2000.

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