San Francisco Ballet in Swan Lake

May 21, 2021

Charlotte Kasner

What has been a hugely pleasurable digital season from San Francisco Ballet came to a close with Helgi Tomasson’s 2009 production of Swan Lake, his second for the company.

His robust re-telling is well suited to modern sentiments: after all we are all familiar with women suffering coercive control (if not being turned into birds) and indeed, doleful princes who make dubious choices in their partners. It’s also enjoyably dramatically, one would expect little else of San Francisco, even if it does lack magic in the white acts. If Yuri Grigorovich’s Bolshoi Swan Lake is Siegfried’s story, this is very much Odette’s.

Tomasson introduces an effective prologue showing how von Rothbart turned a young girl, Odette, into a swan. There is a very clever transformation when, fleeing the predatory uncle, she runs behind the backcloth, falls to the floor and then an image of a swan rising from rest is projected.

Yuan Yuan Tan and Tiit Helimets in Helgi Tomasson’s Swan Lake
Photo Erik Tomasson

From there to an urban square with peasants and military mingling in a mis en scène. Jonathan Fensom’s setting is Georgian with something of a Quality Street feel, costumes being stylised rather than faithful to the era in detail. The Empire line does have the advantage of allowing a lot of freedom for the women to move though.

Tomasson provides plenty of opportunities for interesting dancing from aristocrats and peasants alike, including an extended pas de trios danced impeccably by Dores André, Taras Domitro and Sasha De Sola. A special mention too for the marvellous Anita Pacioti as Siegfried’s mother.

There’s also a elegiac solo for Siegfried, beautifully danced throughout by Tiit Helimets, that suggests unhappiness that he is to be married and perhaps for his waning carefree youth. One can, of course, cast all cares away with a day (or in this case a sleepless night) in the hunting field so, as his guests depart, Siegfried takes up his crossbow and heads for the lake.

At the lakeside, Fensom and lighting designer Jennifer Tipton create a reflective floor that initially appears as if the swans are on ice and provides a slightly distorted reflection of their legs.

San Francisco Ballet in Helgi Tomasson’s Swan Lake
Photo Erik Tomasson

Ellen Rose Hummel, Lauren Parrott, Julia Rowe and Emma Rubinowitz give a good account of themselves as the cygnets, as do WanTin Zhao and Jennifer Stahl as the big swans.

The swans of the corps are a little ragged, however, although their unflattering tutus and wigs that make them look like gamin’ refugees from a party at Gatsby’s do not help. The tutu bodices appear flimsy, sagging and wrinkling with movement as well as reflecting a stark whiteness in comparison with the tulle. The mop tops also make them look more human than swan. I wondered not that Odette found herself amidst a flock of swans, but that von Rothbart might be some sort of serial sorcerer converting multiple girls who rejected his advances into swans.

As Odette, Yuan Yuan Tan shows a supremely pliant back and arms that give the impression of being boneless. She introduces the occasional flick of the head and eye contact at just the right angle to suggestion a courting pen.

As Siegfried pledges his allegiance to Odette, she acknowledges hers to von Rothbart, pausing for a few seconds en pointe and facing him upstage before boureéing off.

Back in a very minimalist ballroom, the princesses are various nations are paraded for Siegfried’s delectation. Tómasson creates lots of visual and choreographic interest in the national dances, particularly the Russian, and the costumes are pleasing too.

As Odile makes her entrance, some of the rearrangements of the score grate a little, but perhaps that is a lack of familiarity of the order. Nothing awry about the dancing though; Yuan Yuan Tan does not dazzle, she is much more subtle. Tómasson gives her just enough quotations from Odette to make her deception credible and at one point, she abruptly shuns Siegfried as he moves in to live her from her ‘swan pose’ on the floor only for her to beckon him back. This is a flirtatious Odile, not binding with pizzazz and glitter but deliciously seducing.

At the lake, conductor Martin West takes some of the music for the ensemble at a very stately pace indeed. In contrast, Odile’s finale is taken at a cracking pace, Siegfried’s tours included. Siegfried tells his mother several times that he wishes to marry Odile but von Rothbart repels him, only on his third declaration of love making him swear allegiance. This is one of the most dramatically effective renditions of the plot that I have seen, it sometimes being skated over rather hastily, even though it is the of the matter. The baleful, o’er weaning moon turns back from a corona of light to a super moon, to bear witness to the final scene at the lake.

Tomasson slightly chickens out at the end, adding a dramatic suicide where the lovers jump off a cliff à la Tosca only to redeem them by resurrecting Odette as a girl and letting Siegfried off the hook too…and who said it was Soviet Russia that insisted on a happy ending?

San Francisco Ballet’s Swan Lake is available online until June 9, 2021. Visit for tickets and details.