It hardly gets more popular and quintessentially classic than Swan Lake, certainly in the mainstream public’s eye, and on Friday night at the War Memorial Opera House, you could feel the buzz in the air. But it came with a bittersweet note of as well. This is the last program of the San Francisco Ballet’s season and of the 37-year tenure of retiring artistic director Helgi Tomasson. The season has been full and busy – administrators made smart choices throughout on how to keep both dancers and audience members safe – and suddenly it’s all coming to an end, just as we were acclimating to a new, post-Covid world. Bittersweetly sentimental was how I felt, but there’s no better way to end the season and Tomasson’s long tenure than with his highly acclaimed 2009 Swan Lake.

San Francisco Ballet in Tomasson's Swan Lake
© Erik Tomasson

And it did not disappoint. From the opening scene that allows first-timers to quickly discern backstory, a brief prologue where Von Rothbart (played with sinister finesse by Daniel Deivison Oliveira), preys on a carefree younger Odette, casting his spell and transforming her into a swan, we are swept away in this elegant, engaging production. Tchaikovsky’s score, composed for the original 1877 Bolshoi production, gives us glorious music that far surpasses anything else composed for the ballet prior (and possibly after). Music director Martin West, conducting Friday night, and the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra were superb, as was violinist Cordula Merks whose solo violin elicited pure sweetness and purity.

Joseph Walsh was a personable, convincing Prince Siegfried, whose jumps and beats were clean, his leaps devouring the space on the stage. He’s an excellent actor, crucial for this role, as when revealing his princely ennui after having been told he must choose a bride and marry, never resorting to a staged sulkiness or mugging an angsty expression. Other notable points of Act 1 included the five-couple Waltz, the Peasant Dance and the trio variations (Isabella DeVivo, Julia Rowe and Esteban Hernandez). At Act 1’s conclusion, Jennifer Tipton’s lighting and Sven Ortel’s projections culminated beautifully in a darkening evening sky. We see clouds grow pink as the blues deepen, and over the palace gates, the sight of swans in formation flying through the now-dark sky. It’s subtle touches like this, combined with Jonathan Fensom’s minimalist scenic design that make this production feel fresh and contemporary, even as the choreography remains largely faithful to the 1895 Petipa-Ivanov production. 

Frances Chung and Joseph Walsh in Tomasson's Swan Lake
© Erik Tomasson

In many ways, the star of the show is not Odette/Odile, but the collective energy and visual extravaganza of the swan ensemble. They are like gorgeous, moveable scenery. They swirl around the stage like a visible wind that can stir up tension, confusion and, later, rest still in repose. Costumes were the standard white pancake tutu but, much to my relief, the bathing-cap feather wigs, used since 2009, were replaced with more traditional headpieces, which lent elegance, beauty, uniformity to the corps and took out an element that always struck me as eclectic and un-pretty. 

Act 3 standouts included Sasha Mukhamedov, as the Spanish Princess, fiery and full of personality, partnered by Henry Sidford and John-Paul Simoens. Notable, too, was the Czardas Princess Elizabeth Mateer with partner Alexander Reneff-Olson, both dependably excellent corps dancers ready for a promotion. Norika Matsuyama and Cavan Conley, in the Neapolitan Dance, lit up the stage with their buoyancy and cheery energy. 

San Francisco Ballet in Tomasson's Swan Lake
© Erik Tomasson

Frances Chung, Friday night’s Odette/Odile, is a gloriously strong dancer with enormous audience appeal. In Act 2’s lakeside scene, her Odette was sensitive and held all the right nuances, the shyness, the trembling fear, the wariness of Siegfried. Missing, though, was a liquid, bird-like grace of the arms that, when done right, can tell a story on their own. In Act 3’s Black Swan pas de deux, Chung’s Odile was powerful and fast, but the mood it produced was more cutely mischievous than malevolent and cunning. Kudos, however, to both Chung and Walsh for knocking out stunning turns, leaps, and partnered pirouettes that went on and on (did I really see eight or nine rotations on one turn?). 

The final lakeside act was where Chung’s Odette truly came alive and where music, dancing and mood connected with a searing, real-life poignancy. No matter how many times I see this production, in that final clash with Von Rothbart, against the true love of Odette and Siegfried, Tchaikovsky's music soaring, it’s impossible not to feel choked up. Particularly this year, in the season's final program. This is a production, and a brief moment in history, you’ll want to find the time to come see for yourself. This company, under Tomasson’s tutelage, is as good as ballet gets. 

****1