Ever since casting was released for San Francisco Ballet’s world premiere of Helgi Tomasson’s Swan Lake, the internet dance world has been a-twitter with the six lead couples cast to dance the role, half of them dancing for one night only. The ultimate role of a lifetime for the ballerina as Odette/Odile, it’s a role that encompasses the theatrical characterization two very different yet similar charcters (the swan-woman Odette and her impersonator, the evil Odile), as well as the toughest of technical standards including the infamous 32 fouettes. Everyone has their favorite ballerinas that are almost guaranteed to be amazing in the role (including Â everyone’s favorite Tan and Kochetkova, they’re mine too!), but I was more curious about my dark horse favorite for the role, principal Sarah Van Patten. Not the flashiest of dancers, I’m always struck by her subtlety and transparency, where every emotion shows up strikingly on her face and eyes (including nervousness). Desipte not being a technical warhorse, her performance is steeped in moving musicality and lavish detail, including everything from a look, the angle of her face and neck, and the completion of the curve of her arms. In a one night only performance last night, she blew my expectations out of the water in a stellar performance in a deeply touching portrayal of a traditional tragic heroine with a modern edge.
Principal Sarah Van Patten, headshot taken from the SF Ballet website.Â Â© David Allen
With breathless phrasing and a lovely unforced pause-and-go timing to her dancing highly attuned to the music, Van Patten and partner Ivan Popov shows us how sexy an adagio can be. Theirs is a gentle love story of two people falling in love for the first time. Spilling over with innocence and glowing sensuality, there is palpable tension in Odette’s skittish fear and a slow growing trust of a character who learns to love after being hurt and imprisoned by her captor, Von Rothbart. Van Patten’s Odette is no wilting wallflower, but an oppressed prisoner with a lot of fight still left in her. Amidst her melancholy, Odette flashes moments of intense passion betraying her still very much-alive heart as she clasps Prince Siegfried’s hands around her torso in a tight, desperate hug. Van Patten’s gifted acting comes very much into play as her trust in Prince Siegfried is measured out slowly over the course of the second act, growing organically, imperceptibly. Odette’s ultimate surrender is careful, not overtly farflung or fervent, with a tinge of uncertainty and regret still present in her backbend trust falls into his arms. The effect is heartbreaking. It is a richly layered portrayal that foreshadows an unhappy ending, yet an intimate picture of a girl’s vulnerability who simply allows herself to feel and to love.Â
As the seductress Odile, Van Patten shot daggers out of her eyes as she dares Prince Siegfried to love her, yet her transparency that served her well as Odette betrays her as Odile. Van Patten’s driving energy wavers slightly in the technical allegro parts, occasionally performing the steps without completely commanding them. Falling a little short of the 32 single fouettes (so sue me, I counted), Van Patten’s Odile still flirts dangerously with a smoldering fire. I could almost hear evil godmother cartoon laughter in her final backbend with Prince Siegfried holding her hand where she knows she triumphed over his heart, and knows that she deserved it.Â
In addition to Van Patten’s singular performance, lots of other bright performances peppered the stage. Principal Ivan Popov finally seemed to arrive on the scene in his pas de deux with Van Patten, serving as a strong partner and dancing with vibrant intensity. His solos however were still plagued by uncertain air positions and landings, but his tall elegant lines were noble. Anthony Spaulding was a forbidding Von Rothbart in his fiercely long lines and magnetic charisma, despite his costume that made him look like a mix between a swamp creature and a Goth drag queen. There were too many smaller roles to mention, but included a well-assured Dores Andre and dynamic Martyn Garside as the Neapolitan couple, and Frances Chung, Charlene Cohen, Matthew Stewart, and James Sofranko as the spirited Russian court. The swans made the lakeside scenes my favorite part of this production, dancing cohesively with elegance and serene power.
If you couldn’t tell already, the dancing made the performance for me. Although magnificent in scope, the production itself was a bit uneven, with an extremely static first act that may actually be the most boring thing I’ve seen on the War Memorial Opera House stage. The deathly slow music, conducted by Paul Hoskins, really didn’t help the staid choreography. Peasant dances are supposed to be energetic, communal, warm, celebratory, no? Instead, the choreography felt a bit stiff, overly simple, and too cutesy. The sets by Jonathan Fensom, although grand in scale, were more sterile rather than awe-inspiring. The palace set was the most successful that brought audience applause with its spiraling ascending staircases, and it served as an apt metaphor for Prince Siegfried’s distinguished yet empty life. The costumes, also by Jonathan Fensom, were shiny and new – Odile’s costume glinted cruelly in the light, and the Russian princesses wore particularly pretty sparkly dresses. The swan headpieces took some getting used to, looking unflatteringly like mullets, especially Odile’s black one.
In conclusion, it can be a good or bad thing that the entire ballet falls on the shoulders of the dancer dancing the role of Odette/Odile, and the chemistry with her partner. In the case on Thursday’s performance, it was a very very good thing. Van Patten’s heartbreaking vulnerability and quiet sensuality made her Odette unforgettable, with Popov’s intensity and strength making their partnership a cohesive portrayal of a love that transcends time.
Did you see it? Thoughts? Are you a Giselle or Swan Lake person? If you saw other Odette/Odiles, please leave your impressions in the comments – I’m dying to know how they did! I’ll be attending one more performance this weekend, yay.
- San Francisco Chronicle.Â ADDED: Rachel Howard’s review of all six Odette/Odiles,Â here. Â “By far the most scintillating Odette/Odile was Sarah
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- San Francisco Examiner
- Link for American Ballet Theatre’s Swan Lake DVD, with Gillian Murphy and Angel Corella
- San Francisco Ballet’s website
From the San Francisco Ballet Youtube channel. Check out Val Caniparoli’s wig at 1:15; he was very funny as the tutor. There’s a brief clip of Sarah Van Patten in rehearsal a little before 3:00 as Odette.