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april 2009

Scene4 Magazine: SF Ballet's "Swan Rock" reviewed by Renate Stendhal

by Renate Stendhal

A new Swan Lake is a big deal for any ballet company. Helgi Tomasson, like any director/choreographer of a major company, has had his "own" version from twenty-one years  ago. He felt it was time for a renewal, a face-lift, or else his Swan Lake might turn into "a museum piece." He was wondering how to keep a younger generation interested, how to give a more "contemporary" spin to the fairy tale. The truth is that there is not that much you can do if you stay with the swan maidens of Petipa/Ivanov's romantic lakeside choreography, its sad Swan Queen Odette and her evil Black Swan double Odile, from 1895. The image of swans changing into women is present in almost every culture on earth, and Tomasson knows from his hugely successful Nutcracker that audiences tend to feel like children who love their bedtime stories and resent it if a single word is changed. The traditional framework of the ballet leaves little for choreographers to redo: the opening scene and the grand ball. Then there is the ending which can be happy, tragic, dreamy, in-between.

Much was made by Tomasson and the press about his idea to add a prologue to the story, showing young Odette being bewitched and turned into a swan. Because this way "everybody can understand the story" (perhaps a worry about the status of education in this country?), and because this was to be "Odette's story" instead of the story of Siegfried, the prince who loves and loses his swan queen. It has been done before and it is well done this time, but the scene lasts only through a few bars of Tchaikovsky's music. After the briefest struggle between the girl and the sorcerer, Von Rothbart, she runs off behind a half-transparent curtain where she is hit by his spell and collapses. From her silhouette one hand and arm come up like a swan's head and neck. The projected shape of a swan rises and flies across the curtain. A beautiful effect, no doubt, but with way too little substance or character to impact the rest of the long story to Odette's benefit. (By comparison, Kevin McKenzie in ABT's Swan Lake, telecast in 2005, tells the same background story in a longer breath with far more sexual innuendo.)


A new production usually needs some time to evolve, the same way Tomasson's Nutcracker has evolved. In its weak spots, this new Swan Lake can appear as a three-million dollar redecoration of the good old living room: There is the traditional distribution of sofa and chairs, but they are shiny with fresh upholstery; there are fabulous new curtains (light-speckled like water, leaf-speckled like trees) and a few bold pieces of furniture. Tony-nominated Broadway designer Jonathan Fensom ("Journey's End," "Pygmalion") was engaged to bring a new look and also a fresh approach because he had never done a ballet and didn't know much about it. 

I was struck by the fashion factor in Act I. Instead of medieval Germany, the British designer makes the first act  look like a Jane Austen Pride and Prejudice country party. The tall castle wall in the back is supposed to symbolize how "oppressed" and caged the prince feels, but here peasants and country nobility (the women in high-waist dresses and curly wigs) merrily dance together precisely outside the walls. Nothing tells us that Prince Siegfried is anything but bored. His disengagement is not too surprising, I suppose, given the lack of sex appeal of these dances. Heck, it's his birthday,  his coming of age. It might be a nice contemporary touch for him to jump into the fray or have some pretty "Emma" try to charm him — even if he's only interested in hunting down swans. But no, nothing happens. The choreographer is stingy with his Prince (because this is "Odette's story"?) Meanwhile, the jolly dance numbers are no better or "newer" than any other Act I divertissements of old. 

To stick or not to stick with tradition: Tomasson apparently had a hard time making up his mind. Couldn't a renewal of Swan Lake be done without Siegfried's birthday present (which wasn't even in the original Petipa-Ivanov choreography)? Tomasson has the Queen march out of the gate and hand him his silly bow and arrow — a true museum piece. On the other hand, why eliminate the aristocratic potential brides Siegfried must choose from in the castle scene of Act III? This alluring scene where he gives each hopeful princess (traditionally six of them) a spin is essential for the plot with its suspense of the marriage imposition on the Prince. (A DVD from 1957 with Maya Plisetskaya makes the most of this scene.) Absurdly, Tomasson has the folklore dancers stand in for royal brides-to-be. Then again, faithful to tradition, Von Rothbart, the sorcerer,  appears in the predictable feather garb of a night bird.

In the most important scenes, however, at the lake side, Tomasson and Fensom prove their mettle. They simply replace the lake with the stark nakedness of a massive black rock formation and a huge full moon above it (similar to last year's moon in Lucia di Lammermoor at the MET). You can't go wrong with such a moon, and I think that this renunciation of  the traditional romantic lake in the forest and the usual wisps of fog and mystery is a bold stroke. Here, decoration serves and becomes dramaturgy, a physical expression of the hard aspect in Swan Lake's story of inevitable love and loss. The fragile grace of the swan maidens strikes a particular chord against this hard edge, stressing the mood of imprisonment and doom that pervades the music.

Fenson's "sculptural" intention was served to perfection by Tomasson's corps of swans and their queen, all dressed in elegantly shaped, almost streamlined silken tutus and sleek feather caps. The caps echo the androgynous feel of Matthew Bourne's male swans: their pointed front adds an elemental note of animal rather than princess to each swan. The lines and groupings were exquisitely geometrical and unified to a degree that I first saw at the Kirov, some 20 years ago. For once, the corps wasn't just decorative background. The swan maidens magically resonated with their queen, heightening her drama because it was their drama as well. They were all one "body of swans."

The rock and the movement "waves" of the swan group against it exerted a powerful pull on the lead dancer – in this case Lorena Feijoo – and she, in turn, held them in a spell by the power of her emotions, her fears, her hope against hope, her fierce struggle against the spell binding them all. Probably this synergy is what Petipa and Ivanov always intended, but it is rarely executed well enough to be experienced. It takes not only a perfect group of some 30 dancers, but one principal who can both emotionally and "sculpturally" hold the center of gravity of this massive pull of attraction. I do not know if the other five principals, among them Yuan Yuan Tan and Sarah Van Patten, achieved the same magic. (Most of them only got one performance to try; Tan and Feijoo each got two.)

I  have seen and reviewed Lorena Feijoo in Tomasson's earlier version of the ballet (you can find it in the Archives), and was thrilled to see how the force of her interpretation and technical finesse have grown beyond what could be expected after that last transcendent performance.

Once again Feijoo impressed with the uncanny precision of her technical-musical command that leaves her free to focus everything she has and is on embodying something other than a woman, a being in-between-worlds. Having known nature in the body of a swan, her humanness now seems to hang on a silken thread.  Unable to be fully either maiden or swan, she is helplessly, tragically suspended between the possibilities of each. Feijoo's arms are wing-like, not arms imitating wings. Her dance is totally noiseless, her coming down from a lift or from point like butter melting.


There seems to be no bone structure to harden or limit the pliability of this swan woman, her floating  in and out of piqués, arabesques, développés and lifts. Feijoo is gifted with a face that is effortlessly real in sorrow and anguish, despair and tenderness. When she approaches the Prince and curls her neck toward his hand, giving him a little shove of tender pleading, you see a swan, an animal creature of vulnerable innocence. Her enchainée pirouettes are dreamy with longing and hope, the yearning of romantic love. But every movement ultimately tends toward an implied despair, a mourning over the human love that will never free her. Even if this love were true, the story tells us, it can't prevail against Von Rothbart's power — unless  the lover sacrifices his life for her. When I think of ballerinas able to express such haunted emotion, only Galina Ulanova comes to mind. I have never before thought it possible that a dancer on point could turn a pirouette that projects a tragic foreboding, or a backward free fall into the Prince's arm that is felt like a swooning, fainting  — a surrender to death.


Feijoo never dances for herself the way so many acrobatic, virtuosic leg-lifters do; she always dances with and toward her partner, intensely involved in the meaning of their relationship. She promptly brought this shadow of a Prince (the sorely under-prepared and heavy Pierre-Francois Vilanoba) to life just enough to sustain the love illusion.


When she descended the Vegas-style staircase in the ball scene (you can never go wrong with a huge staircase onstage), as the poisonous, vengeful Odile, she again took her role to an edge. With the whispers of Von Rothbart (Anthony Spaulding) in her ear, she turned on the Prince with a seductive fury that gave me pause. All in black with a black feather cap and exaggerated make-up, her diamond-sharp virtuosic attack (she tossed off fouettés with double turns and one whip-like raised arm) were an almost unbelievable, demonic contrast to the pliable, vulnerable Odette. (I overheard audience members wondering who that dancer was…)

Maybe it was the crazy moon that still hung over the palace scene: this Odile's sneering triumph came as a shock and a revelation. Feijoo's power as an interpreter of singular psychological intelligence suddenly opened up a new storyline. A sorcerer who turns a human being into a swan would easily turn the screw another time and force this innocent swan-woman Odette to become Odile and do his bidding. Odette-Odile would already possess the knowledge that love is doomed, that there is no love, there is only betrayal. While she mockingly pretends to be her former loving self, she would at the same time seethe with rage, a fiery rage that for seconds brought to mind Zizi Jeanmaire's "Carmen" as well as "Cabaret". In her imitation of love the demonic would necessarily push toward a perverse caricature.

The original swan ballet from 1895 needed a Doppelgänger to fool the Prince (and in the history of  Swan Lake, two different dancers were sometimes cast in the two roles). But a more contemporary understanding perceives the closeness of love and betrayal in a "divided self." Whether intended or purely intuitive, Feijoo's portrayal of the double role (a "full-on rock-star performance," as cited by the San Francisco Chronicle) provides a fascinating new spin for this revisited Swan Lake. "What do you make of it? " seems to be the question that arises over the ambiguous ending. At the lakeside, Odette reappears and is joined by the distraught Siegfried. In a prolonged pas de deux of forgiveness and renunciation of life, Feijoo's heartbroken dancing brings you to tears. She throws herself off the rock; the Prince follows her. Von Rothbart writhes on the floor, seemingly defeated. The two dead lovers are seen as a projection of swans flying away from the black rock. The curtain falls while the group of swan maidens, in perfect geometry, hovers in a half kneeling position, bird arms and one leg stretched backwards in anticipation, in breathless stillness and suspense.

Photos - Erik Tomasson


Also In This Issue:
Renate Stendhal's SF Ballet review - Much Ado about Diva Scale


©2009 Renate Stendhal
©2009 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Scene4 Magazine: Renate Stendhal
Renate Stendhal, Ph.D., is a writer and writing coach
based in San Francisco and Pt. Reyes and a Senior Writer for Scene4.
For more of her commentary and articles, check the Archives


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