Tchaikovsky and SF Ballet deliver an irresistible Swan Lake

San Francisco Ballet in Tomasson’s Swan Lake // © Lindsay Thomas

Exciting news just announced by San Francisco Ballet: encore performance of Swan Lake with thrilling guest artists. Details below!

I know some of you, my dear readers, are classical music fans but not ballet fans. Likewise, some among you are just as happy—maybe you even prefer—to see contemporary ballet works set to jazz, soul, even electronica. Then there are others among my readers who simply don’t attend live performances, be it the ballet or the symphony, for a variety of good reasons.

To all of you, I say this: if there’s only one ballet production on your bucket list, have it be Swan Lake. And, if at all possible, have it be San Francisco Ballet’s Swan Lake. The story line, combined with the high level of talent, music, costumes and choreography all serve to make Helgi Tomasson’s 2009 production stunning, unforgettable. Aided by tweaks in 2016, it continues to hold strong, in an 11-performance run this month at the War Memorial Opera House. (Factoid: Tomasson concluded his 37-year tenure in 2022, and this is new artistic director Tamara Rojo’s first year of programming the season.)

Lucky me, for two reasons. First, because I hold tickets for two performances. Second, because my love for classical ballet is exceeded only by my love of classical music. The San Francisco Ballet Orchestra, with music director Martin West at the helm, never fails to deliver a sublime performance, every bit as good as their San Francisco Symphony peers across the street. Basically, then, I’m getting double the performance experience each time I go.

In summary: go see this ballet (particularly this production). Spend that cash. Relish in the best of the best. You’ll thank me.

You’re familiar with the story, right? If not, you can read the San Francisco Ballet’s synopsis HERE as well as my Bachtrack reviews from 2017 and 2022 HERE and HERE. I’ll have you know that I didn’t look at the old reviews as I wrote my newest review, but once I’d penned a first draft, I gave the old ones a peek and was shocked to realize I’d written pretty much the same thing all over again. Different dancers in most cases, but same favorite dances and perfect moments in the ballet. I’m sure you don’t want to read a review like that — if you do, go check out one of the above reviews. Instead, let’s liven things up here, and I’ll give you a Top 10 list of what I most loved about the two performances (opening night, Fri 2/23 and Sunday afternoon, 2/25).

I suggest you listen to Tchaikovsky’s score, below, as you read. Do take note of my favorite Act I section, the Aristocrats’ Waltz (here so poetically referred to as “Act I, No. 4: a. Entrée”) at 05:39. This piece of music tops my list of quintessentially wonderful, romantic, joyful, buoyant, classical music pieces. It’s my favorite dance in Act I, with sweeping choreography, colorful costumes, elegant, smiling couples, and ah, that glorious music. Pure euphoria sweeps over me as I watch and listen, making me feel as giddy and transported as a little girl.


Before I embark on the list business, let’s talk about the lead roles of Odette/Odile and Prince Siegfried. Both couples — Nikisha Fogo with Aaron Robison on Friday night and Wona Park with Wei Wang on Sunday afternoon — did amazing jobs, drawing roars of approbation from the audience. There wasn’t a marked difference between the men; both are seasoned principals and reliably excellent, with sky-high jumps, clean beats and tours and turns, with a cat-like assurance to all their landings.

But Odette/Odile is trickier. One dancer must convincingly portray two very different characters. I’m going to say that in Act II, the lakeside scene where Siegfried meets and falls in love with Odette, Fogo was the more convincing Odette, so elegant and solemn, those long limbs of hers creating something extraordinary. I’ve never seen arms and hands more swanlike, almost boneless in their movement. Park, on the other hand, was an unbeatable Odile, turbo-powered, fearless, cunning, mischievous. As you watched her attack and devour every difficult step, even before she commenced the famous 32-fouetté passage (except that both dancers did something more like 25, so note that it’s not a must-do, those 32 rotations, and the number of doubles tossed in varies too), you just knew she was going to kill those fouettés. Which she did. Doubles galore, and, periodically, this tricky thing of raising one arm to high fifth while curving the other in, which was sooo cool and amazing. The audience was  so into it, cheering and clapping.

Nikisha Fogo and Aaron Robison in Tomasson’s Swan Lake // © Lindsay Thomas

Both night’s Odettes, it should be said, were marvelous in the final act, as an agonized Odette faces a Siegfried desperate to atone. The two choose love and thus triumph against Von Rothbart’s evil, spelling out his demise. (No spoiler alert here, but for a triumph, it’s a pretty sad one in this production, and don’t be surprised if the last bit makes your eyes sting. Blame Tchaikovsky’s absolutely stunning music here.)

Now for that Top 10 list, in no particular order

  1. Nathaniel Remez as Von Rothbart in both performances, creepily excellent (excellently creepy?), with his leaps, as well as those fabulous birdlike movements of his head.
  2. Katherine Barkman, Isabella DeVivo, Esteban Hernández in the Pas de Trois on opening night.
  3. The subtle moving clouds in a blue sky that grow pink as dusk descends, a melding of Jennifer Tipton’s lighting design and Sven Ortel’s projection design that works so very well. You’d swear you were looking at a real sky.
  4. The swan corps ensemble. They make the show. They are stunning. In perfect synch, both performances. Brava, you unsung heroes of this ballet.
  5. Cordula Merks’ glorious violin solos (and duets with Eric Sung on the cello).
  6. Apprentice Jacey Gailliard performing in the demi-soloist role of Swan Maiden alongside seasoned soloist Sasha Mukhamedov and just nailing it, projecting such confidence.
  7. Sasha Mukhamedov and Kamryn Baldwin as Spanish Princess, on opening night and Sunday afternoon, respectively. Regal, assured, decisive.
  8. Newcomers Jihyun Choi, Hui-Wen Peng, Alexis Francisco Valdes (one year more senior), all corps dancers rising to the challenge in Sunday’s Pas de Trois.
  9. The cygnets, that iconic quartet of four dancers with interlocked arms, dancing as one unit. Flawless, both nights. (SunMin Lee, Carmela Mayo, Tyla Steinbach, Angela Watson on Sunday and Katherine Barkman, Isabella DeVivo, Norika Matsuyama, Julia Rowe on Friday night.)
  10. The searing, emotional climax in that final scene, by the lake, the music breaking my heart as the final drama plays out. Wow. Breaks my heart into little bits. Somehow, ultimately, it feels good. Go figure.
Nikisha Fogo and Aaron Robison in Tomasson’s Swan Lake // © Lindsay Thomas

PS: For a deeper historical analysis of Swan Lake, both Tchaikovsky’s score and the ballet itself, check out my essay, “Swans, Art and Pain”.

PPS: That news about encore performances of SFB’s Swan Lake, featuring guest artists? Here you go!





Tickets to Swan Lake encore performances are on sale today 

SAN FRANCISCO, CA—Monday, March 4, 2024—San Francisco Ballet (SF Ballet) today announced the international guest stars scheduled to perform in the encore performances of Swan Lake, April 30–May 5: Natalia Osipova (The Royal Ballet), Daniel Camargo (American Ballet Theatre), and Jacopo Tissi (Dutch National Ballet), who will partner with SF Ballet principal dancers in the iconic roles of Odette-Odile and Prince Siegfried.  

Artistic Director Tamara Rojo says, “I am thrilled to welcome these Stars to San Francisco, a city that loves ballet, and I can’t wait for them to share our stage and their world renown artistry with our wonderful company and audience.”

Casting details for each evening will be released in the weeks prior to opening.

4 thoughts on “Tchaikovsky and SF Ballet deliver an irresistible Swan Lake”

  1. MarySue, had you never heard the story, or had you never heard the music?

    Anyway, yay, that I got to present to you something new! Always love reading your comments; thanks for leaving them here.


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