San Francisco Ballet's "Swan Lake"

The return of the classical idiom
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PREVIEW Maybe it was not the best move politically for San Francisco Ballet to schedule a new, no doubt very expensive version of Swan Lake just now. But a lot — besides the pragmatic "you have to spend money to make money" — can be said for Helgi Tomasson revisiting the world's most popular ballet. In European-derived dance, Swan Lake is the great classical achievement. Theater has Hamlet; the opera has The Marriage of Figaro; and ballet has Swan Lake.

When Tomasson joined SFB in 1985, the company had a 50-year history of presenting contemporary ballets — and had performed Willam Christensen's Swan Lake in 1940 and Balanchine's one-act version in 1953. But the emphasis throughout SFB's history had been on new work, an approach that had taken them a long way. Still, Tomasson knew that the dancers of a great ballet company need the classical idiom. It creates and refines technique and roots the dancers in a living tradition. So in 1988 he choreographed Swan Lake even though he was a relative neophyte as a choreographer.

It was a risk — and a smash popular success, and by now, its sets and costumes have more than amortized. Twenty years later audiences and dancers deserve the rethinking by a much more mature artist who in the interim has created a truly great company. Tomasson is no revolutionary: choreographically this Swan Lake will respect the tradition. However, there will be a first: designer Jonathan Fenson has worked in the West End of London and on Broadway. He has seen little ballet and has never designed one.

SAN FRANCISCO BALLET'S SWAN LAKE Sat/21, Tues/24, Feb. 26–28, 8 p.m.; Sun/22, Feb. 28 and March 1, 2 p.m.; Feb. 25, 7:30 p.m.; $45–$255. War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness, SF. (415) 865-2000, www.sfballet.org

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