Helgi Tomasson’s swan song

Masterful S.F. Ballet production features Asian dancers in the lead

By Garth Grimball

Special to The Examiner

Close your eyes. Think about when you were a child. What pose did you strike to imitate ballet? My guess is you raised your arms over your head making a circle and stood up on your tippy toes.

This playacting of ballet, of the ballerina, comes from “Swan Lake,” first performed at Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre in 1877. “Giselle” may be the oldest ballet still in repertory, and “The Nutcracker” is the biggest money maker, but “Swan Lake” is the most indelible. The sumptuous score by Tchaikovsky. The unmistakable tutu silhouette. The shivering, feathery port de bras. Even if you don’t know “Swan Lake,” you know “Swan Lake.” The ballet has reached a status too often assigned to fads, but it is the real thing: iconic, awe-inspiring, archetypal.

It is fitting that Helgi Tomasson ends his final season as San Francisco Ballet’s artistic director with this revered love story involving an evil sorcerer and a flock of swans. Tomasson’s version of the classic premiered in 2009, asserting San Francisco Ballet as a premiere international company. In its last performances under his leadership, two couples will debut in the roles of the Swan Queen and Prince Siegfried: Wona Park and Wei Wang, Sasha De Sola and Max Cauthorn, marking several firsts.

When Park and Wang dance Sunday as the Swan Queen and Prince Siegfried, they will be the first casting in San Francisco Ballet’s history of two Asian dancers in the lead roles. Asian and Asian American dancers have performed in the ballet before, but never together as the central characters.

“It’s a culture change. I’m very aware we are both Asian,” said Wang, who is from China and trained at the Beijing Dance Academy. “But on stage I don’t think about it. We are contributing to the characters. It’s important for the audience to see you can be who you are and do these roles.”

For Wang the most difficult step in his debut as Prince Siegfried is the first one. “You have to convince yourself you are the character from the first entrance,” he said. As a natural technician, Wang asks of himself, “What dynamics can I bring, what of myself can I bring to this role beyond technicality?”

Wang said he always thought of ‘Swan Lake” as very serious, almost untouchable. He realized learning the role, “Siegfried is a prince but still human, like everyone else but with a title.”

Being the prince requires Wang to get out of his comfort zone, to fully abandon himself to the story. During Siegfried’s final confrontation with the villainous Von Rothbart, the Tchaikovsky score swells as true love fights to vanquish evil.

“Every time I see that moment happen,” said Wang,“I know there’s a reason this ballet exists.”

The other debut performance in the April 29-May 8 program comes from De Sola, who joined the company as an apprentice in 2006. After dancing the corps de ballet and soloist roles, she will step on stage as Odette/Odile, the white swan and the black swan, arguably the most challenging role in classical ballet. “‘Swan Lake’ has been on my mind since I was a little girl,” she said. “I first saw it in Florida where I grew up. The opportunity to dance it is unbelievable.”

The three-act ballet requires incredible strength, endurance and technique. But conveying the story with the technical demands is the real challenge. “You have to communicate to the audience the feeling of true love, heartbreak and resolve,” said De Sola. “My focus must be on the characterization.”

Being the Swan Queen allows the ballerina to play two different characters. De Sola thought the greater challenge would be Odile, the black swan, who seduces Prince Siegfried away from his beloved Odette. “But it’s quite fun. Once the scene is set, it just comes out of me. It’s rare to play evil.”

De Sola doesn’t take this debut for granted. “I feel the weight of the role and those who came before me,” she said. “It’s not about me. It’s about the story, the journey, the history, all of the souls that were bared.”

As for Tomasson, “It’s ballet at its most beautiful. It is a poignant moment for me to share this experience with our audiences and present ‘Swan Lake’ at the close of my tenure at S.F. Ballet.”

Wona Park and Wei Wang in the lead roles of “Swan Lake” on Friday, April 29 at the War Memorial Opera House. (Photo by Erik Tomasson/S.F. Ballet)

Wona Park and Wei Wang in the lead roles of “Swan Lake” on Friday, April 29 at the War Memorial Opera House. (Photo by Erik Tomasson/S.F. Ballet)

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