San Francisco Ballet capped artistic director Helgi Tomasson’s departing season with his “Swan Lake,” headlined by four promising casts. On opening night I saw Frances Chung as Odette/Odile, and she was technically impeccable, emotive without crossing over into camp, and athletically powerful—but she didn’t believably click with Joseph Walsh’s playboy-esque Siegfried. Then I received emails from strangers reporting that Sasha De Sola’s debut in the role had left them dazzled. So I returned to see her second go at it with Max Cauthorn as Siegfried, and am I ever glad I did. Growing up in Fresno, California, I used to re-watch the Royal Ballet’s “Swan Lake” with Anthony Dowell and Natalia Makarova on VHS and dream of getting out of the dry valley to such a life of beauty. At this point, though, it’s been many years since I’ve been truly moved by a performance of “Swan Lake.” De Sola and Cauthorn took me back to a state of wonderment.
De Sola joined as an apprentice here sixteen years ago and immediately stood out in the corps for her crisp confidence, the kind that seems a little scarily imperious. Still, she was a mere mortal then—a teenager of capability and ambition, a ballet version of Reese Witherspoon’s crafty character in the film Election, if you will. In the years since, she has steadily transformed herself into a Ballerina with a capital “B,” not only refining her lines (and, after an injury that had her out for a year, her feet), but also mastering the art of image styling on Instagram and launching a jewelry line. In her downtime at company rehearsals, she sits at stage’s edge with a queenly graciousness, darning her pointe shoes and thoughtfully watching her colleagues with the composure of Grace Kelly; you can almost see a permanent tiara crowning her blonde hair. I will admit a soft spot for dancers who lead ordinary, camera-averse lives off-stage, and drop the ballerina role when the music cuts. But maybe it takes that immolation of self into the ballerina persona to dance Odette/Odile as De Sola did.
She has always had sharpness and attack, so it was no surprise that her black swan in the third act could cut the air like a switchblade. What evoked wonder was her legato quality as the white swan Odile, all the more so for knowing how hard she’s worked over the years to soften. In the famous Ivanov white swan choreography, she was all curving line, transforming one line to the next without interruption. You could see the enduring impact of her Vaganova training at Washington D.C.’s Kirov Academy; everything emanated from deep in her lower back and travelled to her fingertips. The swan effect, then, was never a matter of flapping arms but of complete creatureliness in a highly Russian style. And the emotion was not in her face but always in her body. This was not an Odette who begged with her eyebrows but a self-possessed woman who had been living with her fate a long time—her mind and heart still her own, but her body possessed by Von Rothbart’s command.
De Sola’s Odile was truly a different person, and again the emphasis was that she was under Von Rothbart’s powers—when he whispered instructions to seduce the prince, she listened and then sallied forth to carry out orders. I was struck by De Sola prioritizing character over pyrotechnics. She has an amazingly secure center, and so it was no surprise to see her catch a time-bending arabesque balance in the middle of the pas de deux (Cauthorn’s hands hovered, enhancing the thrill that she didn’t need him), but she opted for plain-vanilla straight-single fouettes. I wonder if this gave her more mental space to inhabit the drama. She seemed to have thought not just about the steps but the moments between, when her Odile sometimes snapped her head to stare vacantly, in a wonderfully disturbing way, at the audience. A sociopathic stare—this Odile was terrifying not because of her seductive intent but because she seemed to have no soul.
Due credit, now, to the Siegfried who made this all possible. Max Cauthorn grew up in the San Francisco Ballet School and danced the children’s parts in this production back in 2009. And there he was, the prince, with beautiful grand pirouettes and an arabesque leg that stayed angled high after he landed his cabrioles. But more importantly, Cauthorn made his natural temperament work for the character, and surprisingly it made utter sense for this ballet.
His Siegfried was a complete innocent, a young man without guile. When his mother the Queen arrived and delivered the news that he must marry, he was shocked and confused, not because he still had wild oats to sow or existential issues to work out; he had just never known love. It seemed natural that he would fall in love for the first time with De Sola’s equally pure-of-heart Odette, and worrying that such an innocent would be fooled by Odile. Cauthorn’s version of Siegfried gave the story a strong character arc: In standing up to Von Rothbart at the final lakeside scene, the boy retained his goodness of heart yet became an adult.
If this all sounds sincere and even simple in an all-too-cynical, posturing age, it was. How tender. How refreshing.