The Thinking Man's Idiot

The unruly brain and bad habits of a writer, artist, and grilled cheese sandwich-enthusiast.

Turns of a Feather: ‘Swan Lake’ (online) at SF Ballet

“I will play the swan
And die in music.”

– William Shakespeare, Othello, Act V, scene 2.

A tangent is a tough thing to make appealing. Seriously, who wants to hear someone ramble on endlessly for the sake of their own indulgence? Sure, it works if you’re reading Tristam Shandy or watching a Richard Linklater chat-fest, but most folks like to know that their time is being spent on a story with a clear and organic ending.

Swan Lake, if we’re being honest, is a ballet that revels in its tangents. It celebrates the fact that it takes the scenic route with its story for the sake of nearly everyone getting ample time on stage. Sure, there’s plenty of time for the swan, the prince, and the evil wizard, but why not spend a while watching the prince observe the peasants and potential brides dancing outside the palace gate? Why not break up his pursuit of the swan with dancing by other swans.

The Queen (Anita Paciotti) and Prince Siegfried (Tilt Helimets) make their grand entrance. // © Erik Tomasson

Why not indeed. Something I’ve often tried to explain to those who don’t see the appeal of opera or ballet is that they celebrate their “bigness” without apology. This, of course, has to do with the fact that they were created for theatres where performances had to resonate all the way in the nose-bleed seats, but also because it gave audiences a chance to vicariously live through those moments of unrestrained emotions. The stories may (or may not) be simple, but the emotional are monumental.

Swan Lake is your typical classic story of a cursed maiden, a handsome prince, and an evil sorcerer dead-set on keeping these kids from getting together. Rothbart (Alexander Reneff-Olson) curses Odette (Yuan Yuan Tan) to become a swan, seemingly for no other reason than pure spite. Or boredom. Prince Siegfried (Tiit Helimets) has come of age and the Queen (Anita Paciotti) wants him married off quickly, but he’s more interested in running into the woods with his new crossbow, because “boys and their toys”. This is where he’s immediately struck by the sight of Odette.

Odette the White Swan (Yuan Yuan Tan) in her element. // © Erik Tomasson

Rothbart, not wanting anyone to be happy, tries to trick the prince by having him fall for Rothbart’s daughter Odile (also Tan). In typical European fairy tail fashion, this leads to a tragic mix-up, a reversal of fortunes, and everyone winding up dead at the end.

Before that happens, this 2016 production shows outgoing AD Helgi Tomasson partaking in those very such indulgences. Whether that be turning choreography over to Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov for a Black Swan pas de deux that gets its own finale applause (followed by Tan and Helimets engaging in a pirouette show-off) or letting Jonathan Fensom’s designs create an almost Romanov-era Russian atmosphere that serves as a fine nod to the ballet’s Bolshoi origins. Martin West and his orchestra are similarly indulgent of Tchaikovsky’s score, which everyone in the world has heard, but most don’t even associate with the ballet.

Like the company’s last archival show, Romeo & Juliet, this one serves to remind the audience that a true classic retains its power long after its inception – something all the more relevant considering Swan Lake was a flop when it was first produced. Their aesthetics are lavish, but also meticulous in their artisanship. Both use tales of star-crossed young lovers to celebrate the time when emotions run their highest without restraint.

It’s not a bad not on which to end the company’s all-digital season. As I write this, I’m now one week past having been fully vaccinated. With any luck, I’ll be around to see Tomasson’s final go-round at the helm next year, but that’s a long way off. ‘Til then, Swan Lake serves as a fine capper to several months of streamed soutenus.

Odile the Black Swan (Yuan Yuan Tan) successfully tempts Prince Siegfried (Tiit Helimets). // © Erik Tomasson

GRADE:                              B+

Swan Lake is scheduled to stream until the 9th of June on the SF Ballet website.
The show runs roughly 1 hour 57 minutes with no pre-programmed intermission.
For access and information, please visit the production’s official site here.

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