San Francisco Ballet
Romeo and Juliet (streamed until 26 May)
Swan Lake (streamed until 9 June)
San Francisco, War Memorial Opera House
Performances captured in 2015 and 2016 respectively
Let’s close this chapter.
The past fourteen months have been something else, to say the least – monotonous, rough, sad, tragic. It’s time for some hope and optimism.
Industries everywhere are anxious to move forward – the dance world is definitely one of them. To welcome patrons back to theaters. To perform, once again, in front of a live audience. Preparations are happening with those goals in mind. Here in the Bay Area, San Francisco Ballet recently announced its 2022 season, including an intended return to the War Memorial Opera House.
But first, SFB needs to close their present chapter, the 2021 digital season. And they opted to do so with a pair of full-length, narrative classics: Romeo & Juliet and Swan Lake, both choreographed by Artistic Director and Principal Choreographer Helgi Tomasson, who marks his final season next year. The former streamed to SFB fans May 6th-26th while the latter became available online this past Thursday.
I’m a sucker for the saga that is R&J. A good production finds me hoping that things might just work out – maybe the young lovers will finally triumph and live happily ever after. Every time I see Tomasson’s 1994 version, I get that feeling. This R&J is very strong – the dancing, costumes, sets, Prokofiev’s score. Special moments abound throughout, if it’s not very different from most ballet adaptations of Shakespeare’s play.
One thing this R&J gets really right is the character arc of Juliet, portrayed in a 2015 archival film by Maria Kochetkova. When she first enters the scene, the youthful exuberance is overwhelming. Each step barely skims the surface of the stage – she is so excited and buoyant. Quickly, Juliet evolves. Nervous infatuation and measured care take over in her early duets with Paris (Myles Thatcher), while a sense of abandon and desire pervades every pas de deux with Romeo (Davit Karapetyan), especially Act I’s balcony scene. With grand leaps, spinning lifts and romantic renversé, the couple floats on air, soars through space and falls in love.
As Act II opens and Romeo and Juliet wed secretly, my hope for a better outcome is still alive. But it vanishes in short order. There’s violence. There’s tragedy. Romeo is banished. Onto Act III, and yet another aspect of Juliet’s psyche – that of a brave, resolute woman determined to avoid an arranged marriage to Paris. A plan is hatched for her to escape and reunite with Romeo, but it goes horribly, horribly wrong.
In the telling of this heartbreaking narrative there a number of choreographic gems. The powerful music that underscores the Capulet ballroom scene is met with equally potent phrase material. Inventive steps pop up in every Act, like the seldom seen Italian changement. Recurring motifs become a physical throughline, binding the characters to one another. And there is one Act III variation that serves as a tonic to the otherwise weighty atmosphere. The pas de cinq by Juliet’s friends on the morning of her supposed wedding is so delicate and lovely, filled with sprightly petit allegro and subtle, yet effective port de bras.
It was a delight to watch artists perform who are no longer with the company, as well as many current dancers in the earlier days of their career. At the same time, it seems that SFB could have used a more up-to-date video of R&J for the 2021 season.
For Swan Lake, SFB also went with archival material from a while back, a 2016 filming with Yuan Yuan Tan as Odette/Odile, trapped as a swan by a sinister force, and Tiit Helimets as Prince Siegfried, who could break the spell with his profession of love.
Tomasson debuted this production of the classic ballet in 2009, and it works well. It’s solid. Like R&J, this Swan Lake is a fairly traditional adaptation. All the beloved scenes and plot points are present: the village gathering; Odette and the Prince’s first meeting and first pas de deux; the swan cygnet pas de quatre; the ball, where the nefarious Von Rothbart tricks Siegfried with Odile; and the agonizing, sorrowful final moments at the lake.
Yet within the established story arc, there are many distinctive elements. Tomasson includes a prologue (present in about half the productions I’ve seen) where we encounter the human Odette and see her lured, ensnared and transformed into a swan by Von Rothbart. It’s very brief, but this sequence of events makes the general narrative a little more palatable for me. Stunning visual effects (lighting design by Jennifer Tipton, projection design by Sven Ortel) frame the ballet, particularly impressive in the moment Odette is transformed into a swan, and at the closing of Act II, when the swans fly away.
From the first curtain to the final blackout, the dancing was impeccable, technically superb. And special attention must be paid to the corps’ women. As the swan chorus, they spend much time onstage, delivering both delicate frozen positions and precise choreography with grace and gusto. But unlike R&J, where the acting from the entire company was phenomenal, here, the acting was just OK, with a couple of notable exceptions. In every step and gesture, Alexander Reneff-Olson’s Von Rothbart was wholly calculating and maniacal. The five princesses, possible mates for Siegfried in Act III’s ballroom scene, also had splendid dramatic presence. And Tan’s Odile was sly, slinky and cunning with each glance and turn.