Swan Lake (Sadler's Wells)
What about the drama?
Stylistic consistency has never been one of Swan Lake's outstanding qualities. Even the celebrated 1895 version, which turned the ballet into a classic after its unsuccess- ful 1877 Moscow debut, was the rather uneven outcome of the collaboration between two choreographers who had dis- tinctively different approaches to their art: Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov. It is mostly because of this lack of choreographic wholeness that the ballet has been endless- ly revisited and reworked.
Today's standard version, therefore, is a complex mixture of authentic bits and sub- sequent additions that have become inte- gral parts of the work. Interestingly, only a few 20th-century choreographers have dared confer some choreographic unity on the old ballet by re-inventing large portions of it, instead of further tinkering. Former New York City male ballet star Helgi Tomasson is one of them. In his 1988 pro- duction of Swan Lake for the San Francis- co Ballet, of which he has been artistic director since 1985, only historically sacro- sanct sections such as Ivanov's first lake- side scene — erroneously known as Act II — and the so-called 'black swan pas de deux' have remained untouched. The rest is mostly his own choreography, even though references to the more convention- al production can often be spotted. Unlike some of his more radical contem- poraries, Tomasson has not opted for a complete revision of the choreography. He has preferred to remain faithful to the clas- sical dance idiom, though filtering it through a 20th-century perspective and curtailing any old-fashioned 19th-century mannerisms. Tomasson's Swan Lake, in other words, is a Swan Lake conceived with a specific audience and a specific company in mind. There is little doubt that his choreography takes full advantage of both the technical abilities of each member of the San Francisco Ballet and its familiarity with American ballet-goers. Indeed, the undeniable and unmistak- able American ballet aesthetic that under- scores most of this production might not meet with everyone's approval on this side of the Atlantic. I, too, was slightly puzzled to see steps and choreographic sequences that, because of my Western European perception, I would not normally associate with this work. However, the technically refined and refreshingly high standard of dancing made me soon forget any choreo- graphic incongruity. What I cannot forget or forgive, though, is the poor treatment given to the dramatic content in this production. Like many 19th- century ballets, Swan Lake belongs to the narrative genre. As such it requires a com- bination of technical display and acting skills. Whether the interpretation of the principal roles results in a straightforward portrayal of the two-dimensional characters of the fairy-tale or a more introspective one is irrelevant. What is important is that the characters come to life on stage and live their story; only then can the theatre magic of the old ballet be exploited to the full. After all, beyond the apparent silliness of the story, the libretto of Swan Lake boasts unique dramatic potential, as some recent modern readings have clearly demonstrated.
However, it would appear that, by focus- ing on the creation of a stylistically consis- tent technical layout, Tomasson has overlooked the ballet's narrative demands. The dancers, therefore, swarm on and off stage as if engaged in one of the many plot- less masterworks for which the American ballet repertoire is famous. Consequently, the more conventional balletic actions they have to perform, within those historically sacrosanct sections mentioned above, look odder than ever. This is the case with the few mime sequences which have been arbi- trarily retained. Deprived of any dramatic support and performed mechanically as if they were part of the ballet's technical lay- out, those conventional sign gestures, origi- nally conceived to enhance dramatic
'There's no easy way to tell you this dear—
rip Daddy off the wall!' narration and to provide the characters with some depth, looked utterly meaning- less and ridiculously superfluous. All in all, what I saw seemed to confirm that there is an element of truth about the innate Amer- ican aversion towards narrative choreogra- phy. It is a pity, for a little effort would have easily turned this lavish performance into something to remember.