Tag Archives: Diego Cruz

San Francisco Ballet’s Swan Lake

Yuan Yuan Tan and Tiit Helimets in Tomasson's Swan Lake. (© Erik Tomasson)

Yuan Yuan Tan and Tiit Helimets in Tomasson’s Swan Lake.  (© Erik Tomasson)

San Francisco Ballet patrons love their story ballets, and the most beloved is surely Swan Lake. Whether it’s because of, or in spite of the 2010 film, Black Swan, seeing this ballet at least once seems to be on everyone’s bucket list. Next to Nutcracker, this is what draws the non-ballet-goer to the ballet. Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson likely considered this when restaging the production in 2009, still largely faithful to the 1895 Petipa/Ivanov masterpiece which, everyone agrees, simply can’t be surpassed. Many have tried; restagings abound. This is Tomasson’s second effort, in fact, after his tremendously successful 1988 restaging. He’d taken over the San Francisco Ballet just three years earlier, while the company was still considered green, regional level. The production was a game-changer for all. New York Times dance critic Anna Kisselgoff reported that it “puts the San Francisco Ballet on the international dance map,” which it did, alongside Tomasson’s careful attention to all the right detail in the ensuing years. (You can read her review HERE. 28 years later it’s still a great read.)

Last Saturday night, the lobby of San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House felt like a New Year’s Eve party. People were dressed in their finest, buzzing with enthusiasm, eager to spend a night watching ballet. In that crowd were balletomanes, donors, longtime subscribers, and yes, the new-to-the-ballet individuals. For whom Tomasson created a story prologue in the 2009 restaging. Now the first-time viewer gets to see how Odette falls prey to the evil sorcerer, Von Rothbart, and gets turned into a swan.

Want more of the story details, dear befuddled reader who has come here to glean more information prior to your own foray into the world of ballet and seeing Swan Lake? Here you go.

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Siegfried is a prince whose mother informs him, on the eve of his 21st birthday, that he needs to settle down and get hitched. He has a restless, romantic spirit, and isn’t too happy about Mom’s dictate. After an evening of celebratory festivities, he heads out into the night, crossbow in hand. He spots a group of swans overhead and shortly thereafter sees Odette, beautiful queen of the swans. She is entrapped, like her flock of female subjects, in this swan body because the sorcerer Von Rothbart put a curse on all of them. By day, they must do the swan thing, and it’s only at night that they turn back into humans. It’s a rough existence, as you might imagine. Only True Love can break the curse. And if that True Love is betrayed, well, she and her swan minions are screwed, forced to live out their lives as swans, 24/7. Seeing Odette, the prince is instantly smitten. Dancing with her, infatuation deepens into love. He wants no other bride after that, none of the foreign princesses his mother presents to him the next night at his birthday ball. But Von Rothbart, understanding Siegfried’s love for Odette has the power to ruin his perfectly wonderful evil world, appears at the ball. Using sorcery, he delivers an Odette look-alike, his daughter Odile, who, as the infamous Black Swan, seduces the prince, deceiving him into believing yes, this is his beloved! He agrees to marry her, all excited-like, but once a vow is made, he catches a glimpse of the real Odette outside, agonized, just as Von Rothbart and Odile reveal their true selves. And, well, all is ruined. Except that true love, as in most such story ballets, will prevail.

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For this 2009 restaging, Tomasson collaborated with costume and set designer Jonathan Fensom, Tony Award nominee for his Broadway theater production designs. Fensom wanted to push the boundaries on respecting Swan Lake’s classicism, yet lifting it, making it more sophisticated. In many ways he succeeded. In other ways, it lacks. The set is nicely uncluttered. Fensom chose one dominant scenic element for each set, keeping it striking, symbolic. In Act I, large wrought iron gates lead out onto palace grounds. Act II features an enormous full moon backdrop and a huge slab of black rock — a shore? — that poses more questions than it answers (such as, if this is the shore, where’s the lake?). For Act III, we have a grand central staircase, that looks more Art Deco than 19th century. (The original production is set a few centuries back.) Beautiful costumes for royalty and the swans alike, except for Michael Ward’s regrettable feathery caps—literally, like swim caps—on the swans, which, as one reviewer wittily pointed out, makes everyone look like Liza Minnelli.

But the contemporary treatment (which includes Jennifer Tipton’s effective lighting) clears the space for the dancing, which, along with the music, is superlative. Among the night’s many standout performances were pas de trois dancers Dores André, Sasha de Sola and Wei Wang in Act I. Foreign princesses in Act III, each representing the flavor of their country: Jennifer Stahl as the Spanish princess, with partners Daniel Deivison-Oliveira and Steven Morse. Rebecca Rhodes as Czardas Princess, partnered by Sean Orza. Norika Matsuyama as the Neapolitan Princess, with Diego Cruz. Russian Princesses Elizabeth Powell and Lauren Strongin, who offered sprightly fare with partners Myles Thatcher and Wei Wang.

Swan Lake’s corps de ballet is a huge part of the production’s beauty, and few corps de ballets look as lovely and polished as the San Francisco Ballet’s. They are a joy to behold when the full ensemble of thirty swans fills the stage. The corps are unsung heroes from a technical perspective: the audience is unaware (rightly so) of the effort required to hold still, right leg tucked back, for minutes at a time. Over and over, the dancers run in, strike a pose, and hold, and hold. So incredibly effective and such a stirring sight. Jennifer Stahl and WanTing Zhao as the two Swan Maiden danced well, as did the quartet of cygnets (Ellen Rose Hummel, Lauren Parrott, Julia Rowe and Emma Rubinowitz). If people recognize only one scene from Swan Lake,  this is probably it, parodied countless times, the melody popping up in advertisements since commercials started popping up.

Here’s a link. You’ll nod and say yes, of course.

Carlo Di Lanno makes a winning Prince Siegfried. A soloist hired in 2014, he takes this role and makes it his own with technical precision and a fluid, masterly stage presence that leaves little doubt that he will soon be promoted to principal. Sofiane Sylve as Odette/Odile was a thrill to behold. Beautiful technique, gorgeous arms, with bird-like flutters and mannerisms that were never overdone. Beautiful extensions and refinement. Her feet, wow. The way her back foot in sousous began to quiver ((Oh, be still my heart; what is this feeling?!) before she bourréd hastily away from Siegfried. And later, the way she draped herself against Siegfried seemed to embody love and pure longing. Sometimes you watch a lead couple enact an admirable performance of two people in love but you never really buy it. This felt like the real deal; their chemistry was palpable. Really, great casting here.

The music: another “oh wow.” I could write an entire blog about how Tchaikovsky’s score stirs me. The tragic thing is that Tchaikovsky died thinking Swan Lake had been a failure (as, indeed, the 1877 poorly choreographed and received version had been). The ballet and its score was only revived in 1895 with the Petipa/Ivanov version. Suffice to say, it’s a masterpiece, and if, like myself, you love classical music with a gorgeous symphonic sound, this is the ballet for you. Merit also is due, of course, to the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra, led on Saturday night by conductor Luke Ming. A great time to mention that the Orchestra won two Grammys this past month. Read all about it HERE. Exciting times for this well-deserving orchestra, which celebrates its fortieth anniversary this year, as well. New concertmaster, violinist Cordula Merks, delivered gorgeous violin solos on Saturday night, during the White Swan and Black Swan pas de deux respectively.

The Swan Lake run is over, alas, but fear not. Another full-length story ballet, Coppélia, is just around the corner. This one is fun, fantastical, candy-colored and hilarious. You can order tickets online HERE. Dates are March 8 – 13, with two shows on both Saturday and Sunday. Here’s a taste:

PS: Just discovered this: a lovely trailer of the production showing Yuan Yuan Tan as Odette/Odile, partnered by Tiit Helimets as Prince Siegfried. What’s YOUR opinion on the feather caps?

San Francisco Ballet heads into 2016

 

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So, I got to attend a second performance of San Francisco Ballet’s Nutcracker this past week, which confirms my hunch that, literally, I can’t get enough of this company and this production. Opening night or weekday matinee, it doesn’t matter. It was all brilliant. And watching a second performance is great fun because you get to enjoy things from a second perspective, both spatially and mentally. Different casting allowed me the opportunity to observe more new faces in new places. Artistic director Helgi Tomasson likes to distribute solo opportunities more broadly, likely as a test drive for casting choices he might make during the 2016 season. What’s more, since the company doesn’t perform locally during the fall months, this is our first glimpse of the roster of company dancers announced back in July. Exciting times.

But before I go into 2016 and the new faces you might see on the War Memorial Opera House stage, allow me to recap some of my Nutcracker musings.

© Erik Tomasson

© Erik Tomasson

I’ve raved about this production before, HERE  and HERE, and you can see my Bachtrack review of this year’s opening night HERE. I won’t duplicate my words, nor my efforts. Really, review writing can be quite exhausting. To say as much as possible, using detail and not feeling-laden description, all squeezed into 800 words – whew, hard for me. Far easier to produce 80K words, particularly if I’m allowed feeling-laden description, which is why I write ballet novels as well, and thank goodness there’s a place for both in this world. A quick shout-out here to worthy opening night performers I mentioned in my Bachtrack review: Val Caniparoli, Sienna Clark, Gaetano Amico, Francisco Mungamba, Lauren Parrott, Davit Karapetyan, Jennifer Stahl, Luke Ingham, Vanessa Zahorian, WanTing Zhao, Ellen Rose Hummel, Jahna Frantziskonis, Ami Yuki, Maggie Weirich, Rebecca Rhodes, Diego Cruz, Lonnie Weeks, Frances Chung. You all rocked.

And the Dec 28th Monday matinee was equally full of noteworthy dancing. Benjamin Freemantle and Emma Rubinowitz as the dancing dolls were a hit; these always are. It’s our first view of dancing in Act I, which is not to say Act 1 is in any way dull. The party scene, with its sumptuous period costumes (Martin Pakledinaz) and opulent set (Michael Yeargan) are magically effective. As I myself enjoy it, as an adult, I can’t help but imagine how wowed out the little kids in the audience must be. I never saw Nutcracker as a little kid (although I knew every note of the score by heart; cultural exposure in our household amounted to listening to records on the stereo versus attending live performances, which makes more financial sense when you are a family of ten) but I can appreciate how freakin’ magical the whole thing must be to them. Especially the SFB’s superior production, like when the Christmas tree grows tenfold amid climactic music and in a matter of seconds, the furniture and wrapped presents get whisked away, replaced by wildly oversized counterparts, thus completing the living room’s transformation into a fantastical dream world. Spine-tingling, every time I see it. It must have blown the little kids’ minds.

If I had to pick one number out of the whole production that consistently wows, it would have to be Land of Snow. The choreography, the lighting, the costumes, the two tons (no exaggeration) of falling snow, the music—it all works so wonderfully, and every time I see it, I marvel anew. On Monday afternoon, Jennifer Stahl and Luke Ingham were the Queen and King of Snow. I saw them opening night, as well. Normally I’d prefer to see all new dancers in the roles so that I can run a comparison, but this served to confirm that this couple looks very, very good. It’s great to see the way Stahl keeps upping her game. Wow, the way her back leg rises so high in partnered leaps and sisonne lifts. (For you non-dance readers, be aware that anyone can get that front leg high. It’s getting—and keeping—the back one high that elevates it to an art form.)

Jennifer Stahl in Tomasson's Nutcracker. (© Erik Tomasson)

Jennifer Stahl © Erik Tomasson

Sofiane Sylve was a last minute casting change as the Sugar Plum Fairy, which disappointed me at first, because I’d been looking forward to seeing Mathilde Froustey in the role. But these things happen during a thirty-performance run, particularly toward the end, when bodies are running down and are prone to injury. Sylve is a technically flawless, nuanced dancer who maintains a certain sense of mystery and distance in her dancing, which at first I felt detracted from the role. (I mean, the name “Sugar Plum Fairy” describes it all: sweetness and bubbles and pastels and accessible smiles and darling fairy-ness.) But what seemed a bit spare in Sylve’s first solo became the perfect touch later, during Waltz of the Flowers (Tomasson’s production uses the Sugar Plum Fairy as the soloist here, and saves the Grand Pas de Deux for another lead dancer.) Sylve’s dancing reminds me of a good Bordeaux wine, that seems beautifully constructed but a little spare at first, even austere. You don’t think the end result is going to be wow enough but then it warms, opens and releases what makes it extraordinary, so that by the end you are thinking yes, yes, that understated interpretation works really, really well.

I said I wasn’t going to write another review, but here I am, writing another review. And yet, before I cease writing another review, I have to mention the thrill of watching a perfectly executed Russian dance on Monday afternoon. It’s such a crowd-pleaser, the way the three dancers burst out Faberge-esque eggs at precisely the same instant, and surely that’s no easy feat. I visualize the three of them, in their respective little egg capsules, mentally counting, praying their timing is in synch. Opening night it was the tiniest hair short of perfect synchronicity. How often, I wonder, do they get it perfect? Anyway. On Monday, they did. Another fun thing: soloist James Sofranko, I recognized, but not the other two dancers, David Preciado and Victor Prigent. Riffling through the company roster pages afterward brought no answers either. It turns out they are students at the San Francisco Ballet school. To which I can only say WOW. Well done, gents! The trio of you were spot-on, technically impressive, and looked great.

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Thumbs’ up, as well, for Grand Pas de Deux couple Koto Ishihara and Gennadi Nedvigin’s performance. This was a big role for Ishihara, promoted from corps to soloist last season. I sense I wasn’t the only one holding my breath as she worked her way through the “harder than it looks” opening adagio, a little wobbly on a first set of partnered pirouettes but admirably rebounding with the support of her Nutcracker Prince partner, veteran principal Nedvigin. He has never before seemed like such a prince, in every sense of the word. High leaps and tours, solid landings in perfect positions, a noble stage presence, strong, unobtrusive support to Ishihara. There was this perfect moment, toward the end of the adagio, when Ishihara, in an arabesque en pointe, having just completed a partnered promenade, released Nedvigin’s hand, and thus his support (very much like Aurora’s “Rose Adagio” arabesque in Sleeping Beauty) and held the balancing pose, and held it, and raised that back leg even higher, and stretched everything out, and wow, it was so impressive, so rewarding to watch. You just know it had to have been an exhilarating moment for her, sort of an, okay, I was nervous before and my foot didn’t go all the way up to passé for those first pirouettes but I will nail this balance, I will. And she did. And the audience just loved her for it. We loved her before; we all like to watch and support new dancers in new roles. But from that moment on, everything seemed to go that much better. It was a delight to watch. Brava, Koto.

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As I mentioned above, Tomasson likes giving his younger, newer dancers an opportunity to shine in solos. Here are castings that I wish I could have seen as well. (Not all dancers are new and/or new to big roles, but you get the idea…)

Sugar Plum Fairy:

  • Jahna Frantziskonis
  • Norika Matsuyama
  • Julia Rowe

Queen and King of the Snow:

  • Lauren Strongin, Hansuke Yamamoto
  • WanTing Zhao, Carlo Di Lanno
  • Koto Ishihara, Max Cauthorn

And since this blog was intended to be a glimpse of what to expect and who to see in 2016, here’s a list of new company members:

  • Lauren Strongin, joining as a soloist this season (from Houston Ballet)

Corps de ballet, new to the company

  • Kamryn Baldwin
  • Kristine Butler
  • Jahna Frantziskonis (From Pacific Northwest Ballet, mentioned in Dance Magazine as “On The Rise”)

Corps de ballet, promoted up from apprentice

  • Thamires Chuvas
  • Benjamin Freemantle
  • John-Paul Simoens
  • Maggie Weirich
  • Ami Yuki
  • Samantha Bristow

Apprentices

  • Grace Choi
  • Blake Kessler
  • Anastasia Kubanda
  • Chisako Oga
  • Francisco Sebastião

A congratulations to Dores André, who has been promoted to principal from soloist. And a “great to see you dancing again” to Sasha de Sola who was out much of last season with an injury. I missed her in this round of performances; hoping I’ll get to see her soon!

A final “well done” to the other dancers I wasn’t able to mention in my review-but-not, above. Well done, Spanish dancers Kimberly Braylock-Olivier, Jillian Harvey, Sean Bennett, Steven Morse, Alexander Reneff-Olson; Arabian dancers Grace Shibley, Benjamin Freemantle, John-Paul Simoens; Chinese dancer Max Cauthorn; French dancers Kristine Butler, Maggie Weirich, WanTing Zhao, and all the lovely, lovely ensemble dancers in Land of Snow and Waltz of the Flowers. The success of any Nutcracker is a collaborative effort, and Helgi Tomasson is fortunate indeed to have such a wealth of talented dancers to choose from. (And one last additional, final-and-this-time-I-mean-it “brava!” to WanTing Zhao for her opening night performance in Arabian. My words of praise surpassed my 800 word maximum word count on my Bachtrack review and, alas, I had to cut them. You were gorgeous!)

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In closing, here’s a summary of what you’ll see from the San Francisco Ballet in their 2016 season (in their own words). The season commences on January 24th and continues through to May 8th. I will be attending and reviewing Program 1’s opening performance; check back here for a link to my review. ((And on January 27th, here’s that review!))

Highlights include world premieres by Liam Scarlett and Justin Peck; three full-length story ballets: Swan Lake, Coppélia, Onegin; the North American premiere of William Forsythe’s Pas/Parts; and the SF Ballet debut of Alexei Ratmansky’s Seven Sonatas. The season also includes the return of last season’s hit Swimmer by Yuri Possokhov, as well as audience favorites by George Balanchine, Christopher Wheeldon, and Mark Morris.