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On Revamping A Classic

February 23, 2009

One commonly held belief about classic productions of classic works for the stage is that after a while, they start to feel like museum pieces. Sets and costumes look mothballed and acting and choreography appear outmoded. The productions might be sacred cows of sorts, but eventually, most artistic directors recognize that if they don't do something to revamp the work, it will start to resemble a carcass.

With this in mind, Helgi Tomasson's decision to create a new production of that most hoary of classical ballets, Swan Lake, for San Francisco's Ballet's 2009 season, makes perfect sense.

If any U.S. dance company has a right to lay claim to the Tchaikovsky/Petipa/Ivanov masterpiece, it's SF Ballet. The organization has a long and distinguished history with the work, having been the first American company to present the a full-length version of the ballet in 1940. Tomasson created a new production in 1988, retaining much of Petipa's choreography.

Unveiled on Saturday night with Yuan Yuan Tan as Odette/Odile and Tiit Helimets as Prince Siegfried, SF Ballet's latest production again aims to retain the spirit and much of the choreography of the landmark 19th century Russian version. The most radical change from a choreographic point of view comes in the form of a short introductory scene in which we see the evil Von Rothbart transform the innocent, young Odette into a swan for the first time. SF Ballet didn't come up with this idea -- the 2000 American Ballet Theatre production used Tchaikovsky's prologue music in a similar fashion. But the inclusion of the scene does help to provide something of a back story before we launch into the main action, so it's a welcome addition.

The other main way in which Tomasson has refreshed Swan Lake is in his collaboration with scenery and costume designer Jonathan Fensom. Fensom's designs are imposing yet leave the stage feeling uncluttered. The lakeside scenes (Acts II and IV) are staged in front of and on a foreboding, black craggy promontory with a huge, white full moon hanging low in the sky. The moon makes a reappearance in the ballroom scene (Act III), framed by the two sweeping wings of a grand curving staircase down which the ball guests enter. The moon motif helps to link all these scenes and provides a constant reminder of the snow-white Odette's presence when she's offstage.

Less successful from a design perspective is the opening act, which takes place outside the palace. Even though, once again, Fensom's design features only one main stage element -- a huge early 19th century-style gate -- the stage feels as stuffy, anachronistic and as cluttered as a knock-off Gainsborough painting. If only the moon could be present in this scene to create a stylish visual link between it and what is to follow. If only the costumes could be less pastoral. If only there could be fewer extras loafing around in peasant garb trying to create an olde worlde atmosphere. The first act looks so anachronistic, in fact, that it makes me wonder why Tomasson has bothered revamping Swan Lake at all.

On the other hand, all the dancers execute their steps with such emotional warmth and technical perfection and the orchestra performs Tchaikovsky's mesmerizing score with such eloquence, that one feels for the most part like one has stepped out of time.

That being said, I have a sneaking suspicion that I might have felt the same way about an SF Ballet version of Swan Lake without the benefit of Fensom's new designs and some slight tweaks to the choreography. I doubt that the introduction of a few cosmetic changes have much of an effect on the overall brilliance of the dancing and music. Which begs the question: Despite the sagacity of Tomasson's impulse to plume the ballet with new feathers, is it really worth the effort after all?


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