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Out of the Fog, 3-26: Legacies
Kochetkova highlights new SFB 'Swan' and Isadora awards

By Aimée Ts’ao
Copyright 2009 Aimée Ts’ao

SAN FRANCISCO -- Despite the recent series of rainstorms, California is suffering from a long-term drought. But can that explain why the lake in Helgi Tomasson's new production of Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake," for the San Francisco Ballet, seems to have evaporated completely? Not at all. Read on.

During this production's debut run, from February 21 through March 1 at the War Memorial Opera House, I saw two of the six casts: Lorena Feijoo with Pierre-Francois Vilanoba, on Wednesday, February 25, and Maria Kochetkova with Davit Karapetyan, in the evening performance of February 29. Feijoo possesses a strong dramatic presence and is a much needed locus of intensity in this rather bland production. Her portrayal of the Black Swan had the audience truly excited for the first time all evening as she whipped through her variations and ended with the requisite fouettes, executing the interspersed doubles with a wing-like arm overhead. Sadly, her pairing with Vilanoba left her without a comparable foil to play against. Her passionate Latin temperament demands equally strong qualities in a partner, though not necessarily in the same vein. His lack of enthusiasm for the artistic demands of the role, coupled with a dearth of meticulous attention to technical detail, made a lackluster impression.

San Francisco Ballet's Maria Kochetkova and Davit Karapetyan in Helgi Tomasson's production of Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake." Erik Tomasson photo ©Erik Tomasson and courtesy San Francisco Ballet.

Casting Kochetkova and Karapetyan together proved to be felicitous. Each dancer drew more and more out of the other. One could believe in the power of true love by the end. Both are strong technicians, but both always use technique in the service of artistry. Karapetyan's meditative solo at the end of the first act was supple and nuanced and whetted my appetite for the rest of his performance. Kochetkova's Odette showed the distillation of her training at the Moscow State Academy of Choreography (the official name of the Bolshoi Ballet School), a lineage reaching back for generations that is rich and deep beyond what any American schooling can provide. Yet she is not a slave to those traditions, but uses them as the springboard for her own interpretation. The facets of her Odile caught the light in delightfully surprising ways. She did not attempt the all too frequent femme fatale approach nor that of the icy calculating conniver. Instead, one moment she could be a teasing imp, twinkle in eye and head cocked ever so slightly, trying to get away with as much as she possibly can, and then in a quick shift appear as a flirtatious imposter. These two artists have a rapport that is seldom seen these days. More than just demonstrating a synchronicity of movement, they are sharing and evolving in their portrayal of the lovers over the course of the performance. Hopefully they will be dancing together often in the future.

In both performances, the talented Anthony Spaulding was quite striking as von Rothbart. However, the contorted choreography and twisted gesturing, along with Spaulding's tall but slender physique, made the magician seem like a mutated Michael Jackson, showing a sinister stealth instead of the embodiment of far-reaching evil. With more suitable steps from Tomasson and more appropriate attire from costume and set designer Jonathan Fensom, I'm sure Spaulding would have projected a more satisfying character. Other notable performances were given by Clara Blanco in the Act I Pas de Trois (2/25) and as a Cygnet and the Neapolitan Princess in Act III (both performances), Isaac Hernandez (2/25) and Taras Domitro (2/28) in the Pas de Trois and Elana Altman and Lily Rogers as the Swan Maidens (2/28). The corps de ballet of swans deserves special mention for its precision. In general, the dancers are working at a very high level technically, though they could use some coaching in creating the background ambience on stage. (For more on this issue at SF Ballet, see my Flash Review of the company's "Don Quixote."

"Swan Lake" is undoubtedly the best known classical ballet and the Petipa/Ivanov choreography or productions based on it are the most prevalent. Tomasson has made his Act II and the Black Swan Pas de Deux after theirs, but the rest of the choreography, though serviceable, is not memorable. The other elements of the production vary widely in their contribution to the whole. Not particularly flattering are the feathered "wigs" for the swans, which suggest 1950s swimming caps or '70s disco coiffure. The spiky black under-layer around the face and nape of the neck is the antithesis of soft and feminine, as the swan maidens are meant to be. (Unless you are Matthew Bourne.)

Fensom's three sets, for the birthday party of Act I, the lake of Acts II and IV, and the Act III ballroom, dominated, even distracted, rather than contributing to the overall ambience of each scene. We don't need a literal representation of a lakeside glade, but the monolithic stratified outcropping of basalt or coal resembles a highly magnified, half-buried, sloping black brick wall. No lake, no trees or bushes, not even a tuft of native grass quivering in the wind, only an overblown moon to further distort the scale. A friend reported that during the pre-show talk on Wednesday Tomasson claimed that the lighting on the rock suggests moonlight reflecting off the surface of the water. In that case, the lake is in front of the rock wall instead of behind it where it is traditionally placed in most versions. Thus the swan maidens are wading in the water on the stage, instead of dancing on the shore. Then at the end of Act IV, when the lovers throw themselves upstage from the top of the "rock" they are jumping off a cliff, as the lake isn't behind the rock formation but in front of it. I suppose it doesn't help that Fensom, who has dressed and framed an impressive list of plays, has never before created sets and costumes for a ballet. The San Francisco Ballet program book, with its lengthy description of the inspiration and execution of the visual elements of this version, would have you believe that he was the "right person" for the job. I am not opposed to a new look, new choreography, or a new scenario for "Swan Lake." Vladimir Bourmeister, John Neumeier, Matts Ek, Frederick Ashton, and Eric Bruhn each put his own stamp on his version of this iconic masterpiece. However, the choreographer's artistic decisions and choices must make sense in relation to each other. In this case, arbitrarily choosing effects only for their novelty yields a Pop Art collage, a Frankenstein of a ballet. More than a century ago the melding of all the parts -- music, movement, visual design -- was called Gesamtkunstwerk, an ideal that has surfaced many times in many cultures and historical periods. Neo-classicism, Modernism and Post-modernism do not throw this concept out the window, they simply have their own respective aesthetics. Fensom's designs reveal a lack of understanding of the function of sets and costumes in dance. In a symbiotic synthesis the sets need to create atmosphere and space for the choreography, without competing with it; the choreography should fill that space with movement, and that movement should resonate with the shape of the space and further the narrative, if there is one.

Isadora's Legacy

The winners of the 2007-2008 season Isadora Duncan Dance Awards, a.k.a. Izzies, were announced at the 23rd annual awards ceremony at Brava Theater in San Francisco on Monday:

Outstanding Achievement in Choreography: Joe Goode for "The beauty that was mine/ through the middle, without stopping."

Outstanding Achievement in Performance -- Individual (two recipients): Maria Kochetkova as Giselle in "Giselle," San Francisco Ballet; Emily Leap, "Sol Niger," Circo Zero.

Outstanding Achievement in Performance -- Ensemble (two recipients): Rodney Bell, Sonsheree Giles, "To Color Me Different," AXIS Dance Company, 2008 WestWave Dance Festival; Laurel Keen, Bret Conway, "Rasa," Alonzo King's LINES Ballet.

Outstanding Achievement in Performance -- Company: InkBOAT, "C(H)ord."

Outstanding Achievement in Visual Design (Costumes, Lights, and Sets): Della Davidson, David K.H. Elliott, Ellen Bromberg, Jennifer Michelson, Dawn Sumner, Louise Kellogg, Gerald Bawden, Oliver Kreylos, Michael Neff, "Collapse (suddenly falling down)," Sideshow Physical Theatre.

Outstanding Achievement in Music/Sound/Text: Sean Feit, "Sol Niger," Circo Zero.

Outstanding Achievement in Restaging, Revival, or Reconstruction (two recipients): Zenon Barron, Ensambles Ballet Folklorico de San Francisco, "Danza del Venado" by Amalia Hernandez (1959); Donald Mahler, Company C Contemporary Ballet, "Dark Elegies" by Antony Tudor (1937).

Special Award -- for outstanding achievement during the previous calendar year by or for a Bay Area individual or organization (two recipients): San Francisco Ballet, Helgi Tomasson, artistic director, New Works Festival (2008); Katie Faulkner, Benjamin Goldman, "Loom."

Sustained Achievement -- for outstanding contributions spanning 10 or more years in any field of Bay Area dance (two recipients): Gary Masters, artistic director, San Jose Dance Company, 19 years of service to the Bay Area dance community and specifically: in San Jose; Cher Delamere, Librarian, the Bernard Osher Foundation Art, Music and Recreation Center, San Francisco Public Library (Main Branch).

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