Rachel Howard
Mar 2, 2016 · 5 min read
8Yuan Yuan Tan and Tiit Helimets in Helgi Tomasson’s Swan Lake. Photo by Erik Tomasson.

This season I’m writing about San Francisco Ballet for magazine venues, like Ballet Review, with my work not appearing until later this year. But with the company dancing better than I’ve ever witnessed in Swan Lake, I can’t help offering some quick notes.

I saw two performances of Swan Lake, with the same vivacious trio for the hot-stuff Act I pas de trois: Esteban Hernandez, Jahna Frantziskonis, and Julia Rowe. All three are young corps members, and Frantziskonis joined just this year.

Esteban Hernandez. Photo by Chris Hardy.

Hernandez: Watching from Row L, I was struck by how Hernandez has grown into a confident, gallant stage presence, with a high-tilted chin, fingers that seem to invite you to dance with him, and a steady, easy smile. In these aspects he resembles Gonzalo Garcia (now decamped to New York City Ballet) circa 2002–2008. Viewed from Row D, what shone was Hernandez’s technique: How high he jumps in those double tours, how straight he spins on his axis, and how perfectly he lands in a tight, pillowy fifth. Also elegant: How high he stands on demi-pointe in his pirouettes, and how cleanly he turns out his thighs in those soaring grand jetes. Hernandez has cultivated a winning combination of physical refinement and emotional exuberance, and when (not if) he rises to soloist rank, he will no doubt keep ascending to principal.

Julia Rowe. Photo by Chris Hardy.

Julia Rowe: A ham, a delightful exhibitionist who can’t stop herself from gasping with pleasure at the tricks she’s about to throw at you in the next phrase. Fortunately these tricks have as much to do with musicality as they do with gymnastics. She is a brilliantly quick mover (oh, to have such quick-twitch muscles in your calves and feet!) with a sixth sense for the long, teasing pauses of rubato. Since Tina LeBlanc’s retirement in 2009, San Francisco Ballet has lacked a woman with her virtuosities for speed and clarity. Julia Rowe now fills that void and, I suspect, could take on LeBlanc’s old roles beautifully.

Jahna Frantzikonis. Photo by Chris Hardy.

Jahna Frantzikonis: Intrigues but remains a bit of a cipher. She had the solo with the tricky compound step of turning backwards quickly in low hopping arabesques, and she did it perfectly. In her echappes and jumps on pointe she was crisp and precise and in her turns and saut de chat she was sailing. But I need to see her in more roles to get a sense of her musicality and personality.

Carlo di Lanno. Photo by Chris Hardy.

Sofiane Sylve and Carlo di Lanno: They starred as Swan Queen and Prince in the February 20th matinee, Sofiane Sylve’s first time performing the Odette/Odile double role at San Francisco Ballet even though she first took it on with the Dutch National Ballet as, I think, a teenager. She was stately and unimpeachable in technique, delivering exciting fast legwork in the quick passage of passé retire where Odette appears to be flapping violently, and maintaining a purity of line that was especially gorgeous through her shoulders and neck when viewed from the back on that diagonal line of arabesque fouettes. In her Act III, as the black swan Odile, she launched into imperious double fouette turns and cranked out ten of those, I think, before finishing cleanly with singles. But her Prince Siegfried, soloist Carlo di Lanno, was too green to make me believe in their love affair. He’s a stunningly pure, deliberate dancer — and so much ballon! Such soft, pliant feet! But in the pas de deux he seemed like a thirteen-year-old who managed to get in bed with a supermodel and can hardly work up the nerve to touch her. A sweet boy. Acting classes and life experience will both help.

Yuan Yuan Tan and Tiit Helimets in Act III of Swan Lake. Photo by Erik Tomasson.

Yuan Yuan Tan and Tiit Helimets: What a difference at the Saturday, February 27th matinee — a performance of rare electricity. Helimet’s technique was far from on that day — he fudged the last turn of most of his pirouettes, and consistently landed under-roated in tours en l’air — but what acting! The patrons near me in Row D giggled during the Act II white swan pas de deux, so devoted was Helimets’ gaze at Odette, so convincingly knitted his brow. And together the two understood every moment of their story arc. After her trembling and fearfulness in their first encounter, they shared a moment of joy, Tan smiling as she bent over Helimets on bended knee. And then came Von Rothbart — corps member Alexander Reneff-Olson offering one of the convincing most finger-curling villains I’ve ever seen — and angst tore apart their small respite of untroubled love.

Tan is dancing at a zenith of freedom these days. Her Act III as the black swan Odile was a romp, a reveling in the strength hidden in that reedy, seemingly frail body. She was all about the balances. When Helimets set her up in arabesque with her arms in high fifth, then stepped away, she stood steady there for four full bars of music. Everyone in the opera house was gaping. And to me, just as exciting was the moment she fell out of her 32nd fouette turn, and gave a little “whoopsie” shrug of the shoulders. Win some, lose some. Who cares when you’re having fun?

I’m not a huge fan of Tomasson’s Jane Austen-era production of a story usually set in Medieval times, not fond of the body-obscuring drapery of the dresses designer Jonathan Fensom created for the pas de trois women, not enamored of the plastic oil-slicked rock that looks nothing like a lakeside, and I’m not warming to the Ziefield Follies-style staircase in the bare ballroom scene. But Tomasson has preserved the iconic standard Lev Ivanov choreography for the swan scenes, and the corps was thrilling. Due credit to Lola de Avila for her coaching. Kimberly Braylock-Olivier and Ami Yuki were heart-meltingly beautiful as the two leading large swans in both performances I saw.

Rachel Howard

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Dance critic whose work has appeared in the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Fjord Review, and Ballet Review. www.rachelhoward.com.