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Swan Lake, Encore

San Francisco Ballet artistic director Tamara Rojo may have taken on more drama than she bargained for programming a star-studded “Swan Lake” encore for the finale of her first season here. After all, for 37 years under Helgi Tomasson, SFB may have welcomed occasional guest artists, but the company didn’t much promote them. (As a New York City Ballet alum, Tomasson hewed closer to George Balanchine’s “no stars” casting ethos than to American Ballet Theatre’s.) West Coast ballet goers aren’t used to casting-driven ticket sales, and people went into a tizzy when the Royal Ballet’s Natalia Osipova was announced as Rojo’s glitziest guest. Tickets were put on sale before Osipova’s exact performance dates were decided, and buyers snapped up multiple dates hoping to win the Osipova lottery, flying in from far and wide to catch a legend.

Performance

San Francisco Ballet, “Swan Lake” encore

Place

War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, CA, April 29 and May 3, 2024

Words

Rachel Howard

San Francisco Ballet in Helgi Tomasson's “Swan Lake.” Photograph by Lindsay Thomas

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So imagine the crackle in the War Memorial Opera House on opening night when Rojo stepped in front of the curtain with an announcement: Osipova was out with an injury. The star ballerina’s second date of the encore run was cancelled, too. Another advertised guest artist, Jacopo Tissi, had also pulled out a few weeks before. Jasmine Jimison, promoted to principal at SFB just weeks before, would debut as Odette/Odile in Osipova’s place. Time for some positive spin.

“This is the stuff legends are made of,” Rojo said, adding, “I hope you’ll join me in supporting the start of Jimison’s journey in ‘Swan Lake’.” The appeal to team spirit worked. You could feel most of the audience turn from anger to warmth, and Jimison delivered a commendable if less than revelatory debut (more on that in bit). Still, the guest star lottery that Rojo had set the audience up to play was looking like a scheme with no jackpot.

Cue our hero Daniel Camargo.

Camargo, the only dancer among the three originally scheduled guest artists to make good on his promised appearance, danced one show, the penultimate matinee. With the company’s own Nikisha Fogo as Odette/Odile, this was a double-star payout of high drama and immersive catharsis. I suspect a small legion of West Coast converts to ballet were made among the first-time attendees that day.

Nikisha Fogo and Daniel Camargo in Helgi Tomasson's “Swan Lake.” Photograph by Lindsey Rallo

European and East Coast ballet fans are already familiar with Camargo’s wattage, having watched the Brazilian-born dancer’s journey from Stuttgart Ballet to the Dutch National to American Ballet Theatre, where he danced leads in all the major story ballets last season. His Instagram-friendly qualities strike one the moment he steps on stage, of course: He’s tall, hunky, with a movie idol face that combines the commanding brow of Jon Hamm with the approachable grin of John Krasinsky. The technique is there, but it’s not the focus of his performance. Tours are fully rotated but the landings are so soft and move so naturally into the next step that you don’t think of what he’s done as any kind of trick. Pirouettes are secure but he’s doing the minimum number. On certain steps that Helgi Tomasson includes in the Act One solo for Siegfried, Camargo let the knee dip quite a bit from a nice high retiré through a turned-out attitude and into arabesque. It was less textbook-impressive than the way I’ve seen most SFB men do it, but also less gymnastically awkward.

What made Camargo’s “Swan Lake” Act One immediately commanding was, instead, that celebrated and elusive ability for a dancer to be fully in the moment. No gesture or dramatic action felt pre-ordained or rushed, and the simple carriage of Camargo’s shoulders spoke volumes as he interacted with the kingdom’s citizens. His Siegfried was noble, but not haughty; attractive and kind, but not a flirt. He’s not a naïve boy, like Max Cauthorn’s Siegfried in this production (Cauthorn being my second-ever favorite Siegfried here); maybe he’s simply happy reading Aristotle between hunting outings, the guy all the girls love even though he’s just being polite.

When his mother the Queen arrived, he was delighted to see her, and here again Camargo’s refusal to rush through a pre-ordained story moment made all the difference. As the Queen (a warmly maternal Joanna Berman) mimed that she wanted him to find a beautiful woman he could propose to, he listened with bright interest. It was only after turning from her and thinking on this for a beat that you could see him realize, with a sadness in disappointing her: No, he wasn’t interested in marrying. I’ve heard other SFB principal men contend that Tomasson’s staging of “Swan Lake” has too little Act One dancing for Siegfried to really establish the Prince’s character. Well, Camargo didn’t have any problem with it.

Nikisha Fogo and Aaron Robison in Helgi Tomasson's “Swan Lake.” Photograph by Lindsay Thomas

Nikisha Fogo is also an electrifyingly in-the-moment dancer, and with her entrance as Odette in Act Two, the performance hit an intensity of feeling that never abated. As in her “Swan Lake” debut alongside Aaron Robison in March, the special sauce of her interpretation is her unusually long arms and big hands, or more accurately, the way she’s willing to use them as apparatuses to performance art, pushing the articulation towards the creaturely. Her height worked perfectly for nestling her head into Camargo’s shoulder on pointe. (And is it my imagination, or does he use his feet and legs with more integrated care while partnering than many Siegfrieds?) There were thrilling flashy-step moments—she takes a big, bird-like sissonne, and her stamping through all those passés in the fast, flapping passage is really bold and musical—but what remains in memory are her small, natural smiles. Her Odette doesn’t just fear and need Siegfried—in little stolen glances, she adores him.

Her transformation to the black swan Odile for Act Three came in those stolen moments, too—Fogo is a master at that delicious passage, just after a vision of Odette interrupts Siegfried’s bewitchment by the impostor, when Odile gives Siegfried pleading sweet-eyes while he’s watching, and looks to Rothbart with a wicked smile when he’s not. As for the traditional Petipa choreography fireworks, what I love about Fogo is that I’m never quite sure what she’s going to pull off in a given show—and I really don’t care, by which I mean I don’t worry for her. Whatever happens, she never seems down on herself or disappointed, and so I don’t feel disappointed, and that’s a gift of freedom from dancer to viewer.

For this performance, she hit a great prolonged balance, and launched into her first variation with quadruple attitude turns, but when it came to the fouettés, she started out by throwing in doubles, nearly lost it, changed her spot, and carried on with singles to a rather rocky ending. Just as in her debut show with Robison, this was probably not the fouetté run she’d hoped for, but Odile would laugh it off, and so Fogo did, dashing for that costume change and towards a tender return as Odette in a moving final lakeside scene.

Jasmine Jimison and Isaac Hernández in Helgi Tomasson's “Swan Lake.” Photograph by Lindsey Rallo

As for Jimison’s Odette/Odile on opening night, she stepped into a high-pressure moment heroically, and her interpretation has the potential to develop into something special. In her arabesque she almost has Fonteyn-like qualities of tranquility and softness, so harmonized are her long arms, elegant fingers, and regretful downcast gaze. But her arms in motion need to develop their own style for her Odette to be singular, and the emotional valence needs to vary beyond pained suffering. In other words, her first lakeside scene could develop more emotional contrast.

As the Act Three Black Swan, although her deviousness simmered at a minimum boil, she held an exciting balance and got through the fouettés passably, quickly nixing the doubles after the first round made her travel a disconcerting distance. It was at this point that I thought to myself, “She has good chemistry with Isaac Hernandez,” her Siegfried. He was having a strong show, his acting very natural and free, and his connection to her was palpable—but it was the connection of a dancer pulling for his peer’s success, rather than a connection between them as immersed in their characters. Still, an exciting kind of chemistry in its own right.

An additional seven performances of “Swan Lake” to cap a season offers opportunities for corps dancers to bust out, of course, and my favorite in this category was Angela Watson. She was something special in the Act One pas de trois, with arms that are delicate and conversationally alive, and an energy that is both sharp and calm. On the other end of the casting spectrum, everyone was talking about Angelo Greco, an audience favorite principal since 2017, who is leaving for Houston Ballet with only the rather oblique explanation that he’s craving new experiences.

Greco was given the final performance of the run, alongside Misa Kuranaga, with whom he’s developed a close and touching partnership. On the one hand, how fitting that Greco had the final show; on the other, why not honor our departing dancers as Peter Boal does at Pacific Northwest Ballet, with a season-capping encore dedicated to the company’s own members? Guest stars, by all means—bring Camargo back! But Tomasson’s more low-key way of handling casting had its merits. There will always be chatter around perceived favoritism and snubs, “guest star” encores or no, true. Nevertheless, I’d be happy to keep more of the drama on the stage. The world has bigger problems than these casting soap operas, and a ballet like “Swan Lake” should be our respite and rejuvenation, the better to hold life’s real conflicts.

Rachel Howard


Rachel Howard is the former lead dance critic of the San Francisco Chronicle. Her dance writing has also appeared in the New York Times, the Hudson Review, Ballet Review, San Francisco Magazine and Dance Magazine.

comments

Burl Willes

Brava, Rachel for your fine review, written as beautifully as the
Swan Lake ballet itself.

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