War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, California, March 31 & April 1, 2017
For his 2009 revamp of San Francisco Ballet’s “Swan Lake,” artistic director Helgi Tomasson added a Prologue. The idea was to make this Odette’s story, but if you ask me it’s still all about Siegfried. We may see Odette first, witnessing her capture by Von Rothbart and transformation into an animal, but Siegfried is still the character who has, as the narratologists might say, “agency.” He’s the one who makes the wrong choice and must pay penance; his is the narrative arc.
And that pleases just fine, particularly with a stable of fine Siegfrieds currently in rotation at SFB. Which you prefer will depend on whether you like your Siegfried to be a roguishly lusty lover or an existentially anguished aristocrat.
Opening night, this season, gave us a cad, and a sense of momentousness. Joseph Walsh’s career has skyrocketed since he left Houston Ballet for SFB in 2014 as a soloist, earning a promotion to principal that same year. It’s not usual for the newsworthiness of a “Swan Lake” opening to be all about the guy, but Walsh is enjoying an extended annus mirabilis while his Odette/Odile, Maria Kochetkova, is an established anchor of the company. And so, primed by his recent triumphs in “Frankenstein” and “Prodigal Son,” we waited on seat-edge to see this prince.
What a flirt. Which should have surprised no one—Walsh is sexual charisma personified—and brought many an amusement. Walsh’s thick eyebrows speak with a gestural vocabulary as broad and brazen as a Shakespearean actor’s. During the long Act 1 waltz of the aristocrats, I confess I stopped watching the corps dancers and instead followed Walsh’s drinking-buddies sideshow with Angelo Greco, cast as the aristocrat who dances the featured pas de trois. The two seemed to be having a bromance conversation far more detailed and animated than the usual mimed, “Have another drink?” And when the aristocrat girls pulled Walsh into their dance? Yes, this Siegfried was used to having his pick.
Which made his “Swan Lake” interpretation a matter less of moody depression, more of giving up dalliances to choose the swan-woman Odette above all others—a figure reminiscent of Albrecht in “Giselle,” or Hugh Grant. Where this interpretation succeeded, during the swan-flooded second act, was in Walsh’s unflagging ardor. Unfortunately, Kotchetkova did not return it. I don’t know whether she conceives of Odette as aloof and self-absorbed, or if she simply wasn’t all that happy to be dancing with Walsh. She powered with her usual technical aplomb through the pas de deux, and even flapped with commanding swan-power through the stamping passé sequence that resembles a bird flapping full wing—this effect despite her five foot zero stature, which made her smaller than the smallest cygnet. But she rarely made eye contact. Things heated up in the Act 3 ballroom scene, when her black swan turned on her trademark coquetry. But the death-by-true love of the last lakeside scene failed to fully convince, even with Walsh throwing himself with great melodrama from the top of that slick black rock.
Technically, Walsh was up to all the tasks, with an emphasis on energy. His grande pirouettes and tours landing into arabesque were acceptably refined of line, but a danseur noble this is not. He can look a bit aggressive in how he handles his partners, leaving the impression of a shove when he sets them down from a lift, and his grand jeté at full height needs more split. All of that is no cause for damnation; “Swan Lake” in Walsh’s hands becomes invigoratingly athletic. And yet—if I have to choose—I’ll take Carlo Di Lanno.
Di Lanno danced Saturday’s matinee, reprising a role he first tried last year. I think he’s becoming one of the best Siegfrieds out there. He too is young, and puppyish, but temperamentally reserved, and a little self-contained. The indistinct ennui you traditionally associate with Siegfried comes naturally to him. His Act 1 solo was absolutely gorgeous: Quietly despondent, as clean in line as are thoughts in solitude. His pirouette finishes to the knee are something special, swaying with regret: you never see the break between execution of technique and resumption of character. And he is a prince to his toes, his center carried high, his soft manner conveying well-bred gentility. He has a virginal quality. When the ladies flirt in Act 1, he seems bashful.
His Odette/Odile was Sofiane Sylve, womanliness incarnate. Their moments of quivering stillness felt like private exchanges to which we played voyeur, so intense was their eye contact. And Sylve turned in a technically suspenseful performance, still pushing herself. For the black swan pas d’action, she opted for double turns in attitude, and turned in six double fouetté turns before switching to doing single fouettés with her spot moving in the round. I doubt most viewers noticed the tiny bobble of a transition. Personally, I would rather have such bobbles than perfection in a veteran. You feel that she’s fully alive onstage, and the risk keeps her that way.
The production these timeless princes and swans find themselves in is set in the Jane Austen-Regency era, which makes for some infelicities of line in Jonathan Fensom’s costumes, while the swans wear feathered bathing suit caps that make me think of Liza Minelli. But that hardly distracted from the fineness of the corps’ performance in Act 2, which Tomasson has kept faithful to the original Ivanov choreography. The uniformity of style as coached by Lola de Avila was entrancing. Ami Yuki was the most beautiful of the four tall Swan Maidens I saw, so melting in her upper back.
For opening night, Tomasson rolled out his A-list. Angelo Greco was dependably powerful in the Act 1 pas de trois, but what remains in mind are his fluttery hands, held slightly higher than typical. Dores Andre charmed through the hops on pointe in the pas de trois, while Sasha de Sola emphasized fetish-worthy feet on the echappes and long holds in attitude. Jahna Franziskonis was the Neapolitan Princess opposite buoyant Esteban Hernandez; her feet were a wonder of soft soundlessness.
But the next day, cast in the Act 1 pas de trois, Franziskonis had—rotten luck—a squeaky shoe that seemed to distract her. Thus the soloist of the hour in the Saturday matinee was Julia Rowe, who delivered terre a terre technique of a delicacy rarely seen these days: easy, bounding, musical. She is a rare kind of world class dancer and I would love to see her dance Bournonville.
There are at least two other Odette/Siegfried pairs for this run, which I did not get to see. Frances Chung made her debut as Odette Sunday, opposite Vitor Luiz. And married couple Vanessa Zahorian and Davit Karapetyan are giving a special farewell performance April 15th, before retiring from the stage to become joint directors of the Pennsylvania Ballet Academy.
One shouldn’t forget the star performance by the San Francisco Ballet orchestra. They played with such lushness under music director Martin West’s baton on opening night that they drew the biggest cheer come curtain.
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