A promise is a promise is a promise.

At the end of the day, the essence that makes narrative ballet timeless are its underlying themes: the power behind promise to move curses and fight off evil, the tenderness and courage of forgiveness and of course, the oh-so-romantic idea of ‘eternal love’. In Helgi Tomasson's version of the 'ballet of all ballets', Swan Lake, for San Francisco Ballet, Siegfried swears three times – to Princess Odette, then Odile, then Odette again – which leads to a pseudo happy ending in the afterlife. All fine, if the narrative is well spelled out: the tension upheld by unpacking the internal conflict of the characters, the corps of swans spot on and the synopsis told well to guide the avid first-time goers along. Only two of the three seem to be the case in this Swan Lake: the San Francisco ballet's artistic administration deserves praise for writing compelling program book copy to guide the more noticeably intergenerational audience along. The true gatekeepers of this production are the 30 young women of the corps de ballet (many of them joined the ranks only in the past 5 years) who frame the action with great attention to detail in quick direction changes, breezing through complex floor patterns. Dancing as a collective body, the juxtaposition of perfect quiet and controlled commotion, upholds the tension and creates the magic that makes this classic irresistible in its appeal to all ages, newcomers and devoted balletomanes alike.

Yuan Yuan Tan and Tiit Helimets in <i>Swan Lake</i> © Erik Tomasson
Yuan Yuan Tan and Tiit Helimets in Swan Lake
© Erik Tomasson
In Tomasson's Swan Lake, the essence: promise, forgiveness and love beyond life, seems diluted and at the same time over amplified – at the end, Prince Siegfried jumps to his death behind Odile, only for the two lovers to reappear in front of an overly large projection of a full-moon, reunited in death. The prince portrays his agony simply by covering his face with his hands, crying; Odile's mime to explain the 'fine print' of Rothbart's curse barely registers. Watered down is the internal conflict of the Prince, with only a fleeting appearance by his demanding Queen Mother (Anita Paciotti). Tiit Helimets portrays a bright eyed prince, who seems to obey and not think too much, leaving one yearning for any suspense after the inciting incident of Act I where he is ordered to marriage. Instead, what follows are more divertissements. Sasha de Sola shone with snappy pirouettes in the Act I Pas de Trois, but the painfully repetitive use of the diagonal from upstage left to downstage right became a tedious pattern in all of Act I, reminiscent of a gymnast's floor tumbling routine.

Tomasson's version is unique in one way: it offers a Prologue. In what seems like the blink of an eye, we learn that the evil Von Rothbart, here Alexander Reneff-Olson in his role debut, casts a spell on the human Odette, transforming her into a swan by day. Tony Award-winning set and costume designer Jonathan Fensom transforms Odile into a swan digitally, with a shadow projected onto the curtain. Later, the swan projections reappear in front of migrating pink clouds and the moon. A glimpse of an effect that could sustain the interest of the tech-savvy San Francisco community but remains a side note in the end.

Helimets is the perfect partner for the tender Act II pas de deux with his Odette (Yuan Yuan Tan), accompanied by Codula Merks who played a goose-bump worthy violin solo, yielding, balancing, showcasing Tan’s flexibility and control. Her fluid port de bras fits a bird like aesthetic with her portrayal of the alluring Odile noticeably different: graceful hands become pointed fingers and snappy wrists, the quick, abrupt balances in arabesque show mastery beyond the 32 fouettés that can be finished, of course, but all too often distract in this writer's opinion. The original Petipa/Ivanov choreography is credited here, only for the Black Swan Pas de Deux and immediately, one sees the principal couple 'wake-up', uplifted in the challenge.

Yuan Yuan Tan and Tiit Helimets in <i>Swan Lake</i> © Erik Tomasson
Yuan Yuan Tan and Tiit Helimets in Swan Lake
© Erik Tomasson
This 2009 version of Swan Lake by Tomasson is a reimagining of his very own debut version created in 1988 at the beginning of his now 31 year-long tenure as Artistic Director of America's oldest professional ballet company. It is evident that this company has outgrown this choreographic rendering, one that doesn't come close to the heights of the pseudo-thriller appeal of a 1976 Neumeier or the cinematic grandeur of Graeme Murphy's version for the Australian Ballet. The glue of the production is the glowing corps de ballet, glamorously clad in Fensom’s costumes with intricate feather head pieces and sparkling white pancake tutus. The tension and suspense inherent in Tchaikovsky’s score is upheld through the 30 women, who with clockwork precision fill the stage and frame the narrative action. As they arrive in perfect lines in B+ stance, the legs shake for a second and then they settle. There is no doubt, not in any of the complex floor patterns and pauses. This flock of stars gives it all shape, drawing attention towards or away from the action. They are the punctuation, the commas, full-stops and exclamation points, where the storyline appears diluted and hastily told. 

***11