The highlight of San Francisco Ballet's Program 7 is the premiere of Yuri Possokhov's dazzling and fascinating “Swimmer,” an imaginative and entertaining production based on a phantasmagorical John Cheever short story.
Possokhov, a former Bolshoi and S.F. Ballet principal dancer, follows his memorable “Magrittomania” and “RAkU” with this offbeat, imaginative work in which video by Kate Duhamel, scenery by Alexander V. Nichols and costumes by Mark Zappone figure prominently.
In Cheever's 1964 “New Yorker” story, protagonist Neddy Merrill “seemed to see, with a cartographer's eye, that string of swimming pools, that quasi-subterranean stream that curved across the county” as he takes off on a journey home from pool to pool.
Danced brilliantly by Joseph Walsh at the War Memorial in the Sunday matinee, the ballet's hero starts out as an ordinary man: waking, showering, dressing, taking a bus to work (the projected/danced ride is amazing). Later on, after a pool party and a visit to the aquarium, he embarks on the mystical, at times orgiastic, water-ballet-on-dry-land which, after 40 minutes, culminates in unexpected drama.
The huge cast includes Maria Kochetkova, Lorena Feijoo, Tiit Helimets, Vitor Luiz and some 30 other dancers.
In program notes, Possokhov describes how Cheever, Jack London, J.D. Salinger, Vladimir Nabokov, Edward Hopper and Mike Nichols all have a presence in “Swimmer,” a ballet that links their influences with concepts from Cheever's story. (The only thing missing: a reference to Burt Lancaster in the unfortunate 1968 film version.)
Veteran ballet orchestra contrabass player Shinji Eshima composed the eclectic score, which opened with a bold solo by Adam Luftman on trumpet. Martin West conducted the music, which included romantic strings, Tom Waits' recordings, vibraphone, piano, conch shell and Todd Manley's percussion on a kitchen sink. (Inclusion of the sink started as a joke, but “with everything from Hollywood to Hopper,” Eshima says, “Possokhov discovered that he likes the sound.”)
In contrast to “Summer” was George Balanchine's “The Four Temperaments,” a 1946 piece that pre-dates New York City Ballet, which Balanchine-co-founded in 1948. One of the cornerstones of the choreographer's magnificent body of neoclassical works, the dance – in which the performers wear practice clothes rather than costumes – received a precise, yet playful and free-flowing performance, staged by Bart Cook. Cook was among Balanchine's star dancers, as was Helgi Tomasson, artistic director of S.F. Ballet, now known for its strong interpretations of neoclassical works.
Paul Hindemith's music complements the portrayal of four humors, which, in medieval belief, formed a person's temperament: melancholic (danced by Lonnie Weeks), sanguinic (Vanessa Zahorian and Walsh, who gave all, just before the demanding main role of “Swimmer” that followed), phlegmatic (Carlo di Lanno), and choleric (Jennifer Stahl).
The corps, unified and with disciplined vitality, looked as good as the soloists. Tomasson's 2014 “Caprice,” a classical work set to Saint-Saens' music, featured pleasant pas de deux by Mathilde Froustey and Luiz, Sarah van Patten and Helimets, interspersed by small ensembles. As usual, Tomasson gave men's ensembles the flashier roles.REVIEW
San Francisco Ballet Program 7
Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., S.F.
When: 7:30 p.m. April 15; 8 p.m. April 16 and April 21; 2 and 8 p.m. April 18
Tickets: $22 to $345
Contact: (415) 865-2000, www.sfballet.org
Note: Mary Wood discusses “Swimmer” with the choreographer and composer at 6 p.m. April 15.