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PerformanceStage Review'Swan Lake,' again? SF Ballet's latest dip into classic...

‘Swan Lake,’ again? SF Ballet’s latest dip into classic justifies return

The company has performed the piece three times in four years, but stunning leads and ensemble work keep it fresh

If it seems like the SF Ballet has done Swan Lake (through March 3 at the War Memorial Opera House, SF) a lot in recent years, that’s because they have. When the still-not-over pandemic forced the company to take its 2021 season entirely digital, they streamed an archival recording of its 2016 production. When the company returned to in-person productions in 2022, outgoing-AD Helgi Tómasson chose to end his nearly-30-year tenure by once again staging his own version of the classic.

Now, we find ourselves in Tamara Rojo’s inaugural season as AD, in which we have yet another remount of Tómasson’s version. In fact, this current production will be followed by an encore in late-April. So yeah, that’s quite a lotta Swan in such a short amount of time.

The issue then becomes what, if anything, another production can add to Tchaikovsky’s classic. Since this one is essentially a full remount of Tómasson’s version, almost nothing is added. If anything, that factor just extends the looming shadow of the former AD over the first full season under the new AD. So, perhaps the question becomes why do they insist on doing Swan Lake over and over again?

Fortunately, that’s one question the show answers easily. First off, there’s the fact that Tchaikovsky’s ballet is so light on narrative that it’s easily accessible for ballet experts and novices alike; it’s the quintessential “stop the story just so everyone can dance” piece (alongside SF Ballet’s other frequent Tchaikovsky piece, The Nutcracker). Secondly, the dancers get the opportunity to show themselves quite worthy of the grand reputation the production has enjoyed for years.

San Francisco Ballet in Helgi Tomasson’s ‘Swan Lake.’ Photo by Lindsay Thomas

For those not aware: Swan Lake is the tale of Princess Odette (played opening night by Nikisha Fogo) who is sought after by the wicked von Rothbart (Nathaniel Remez). As she attempts to flee him, he angrily curses her into the form of a swan. A short time later, it’s the birthday of Prince Siegfried (Aaron Robison), and the whole town has come out to perform in his honor. He’s undoubtedly grateful, but unsatisfied. Taking his newly gifted crossbow, he heads out into the woods, where he encounters many strange sights—including the metamorphosized Odette. He’s instantly smitten with her, but von Rothbart’s scheming endangers them both.

If there’s any one factor about this show that made it worth braving the elements (and airborne viruses) of SF on opening night, it had to be Ricardo Bustamante as Wolfgang, Siegfried’s tutor. I’ve mentioned in quite a few SFB reviews that Bustamante has a habit of stealing the show, and this production is no different. He’s an absolute bolt of lightning, constantly cranking the “volume” up on Tómasson’s choreo without changing or diminishing it. He takes to every movement as if he’s been waiting his whole life just to perform these steps. It shows a genuine love for ballet that’s infectious to everyone watching.

Which isn’t to say that anyone else phones it in. As mentioned before, Swan Lake follows the Tchaikovsky template of putting the story proper on the back burner so that the dancing can literally and figuratively take center-stage. Indeed, the ensemble are outright hypnotic, whether dancing as people in the town square or as animals in the woods. In fact, it was a personal delight to see how diverse the ensembles are becoming – particularly the children’s ensemble.

San Francisco Ballet in Helgi Tomasson’s ‘Swan Lake.’ Photo by Lindsay Thomas

Yet, this story flies or falls on the strength of its two romantic leads. Robison is a fine Siegfried, but the opening night show belonged to Nikisha Fogo as Odette and (another swan) Odile. She stepped into a roles memorably performed by such grand talents as the recently-departed Yuan Yuan Tan. By seeming to perform every toe-step with the greatest of ease, she almost single-handedly proves why this show has been performed so frequently in recent years: so that a new generation of dancers could inherit the masterpiece they themselves have grown up watching.

There certainly appeared to be a greater number of masked patrons opening night, but that may just have been from my point of view. As usual, the Opera House’s top-notch HVAC system delivered excellent airflow, with my Aranet4 reading CO² levels no higher than 635ppm by the end of the show.

Once again, the Ballet’s first year under Tamara Rojo produces a fine show, but one that has yet to distinguish itself or the new AD. Since their next production—Balanchine’s version of Midsummer—may possibly do the same, one finds themselves more eager for the Latine-themed Dos Mujers show in April. That show looks to offer a brand-new single in a season mostly defined by greatest hits. (I had mixed feelings about Mere Mortals, but it’s proven popular enough to get an encore staging later this year.)

Still, as far rehashing old hits goes, one could do much worse that SF Ballet’s excellent revival of Swan Lake.

SWAN LAKE runs through March 3 at the War Memorial Opera House, SF. Tickets and more info here.

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Charles Lewis III
Charles Lewis III
Charles Lewis III is a San Francisco-born journalist, theatre artist, and arts critic. You can find dodgy evidence of this at thethinkingmansidiot.wordpress.com

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