Dances at a Gathering, San Francisco Ballet

One of the loveliest works in the repertory gets a strong rendition with this company's dancers.

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Suzanne Weiss
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I’ve been to many a party in my day but few can compare to “Dances at a Gathering,” Jerome Robbins’ 1969 homage to composer Frédéric Chopin. No cocktails, paper hats or streamers here, just a piano and beautiful dancing that transmits a sense of individuals absorbed into a community. People are flirting, pairing, coming apart, celebrating, competing — no plot, no big deal — just a sense of life, encapsulated on a stage.

I seem to recall on previous viewings that the piano, here beautifully played by Ray Bogas, was on the stage. I may be wrong. I missed it just the same. Memory has it that it made the ballet smaller, more intimate. Jean-Pierre Frohlich and Jennifer Ringer-Fayette, who staged this particular revival, opened up the space, giving it entirely to the dancers. And what dancers they were!

Opening with Joseph Walsh (Man in Brown) strolling onto the stage for a wistful meditation on what once was and is no more, looking at a blue sky, seeking and not finding, it moves on to Vanessa Zahorian and Carlo Di Lanno in a joyous, playful pas de deux and then to an adagio for the long-limbed Yuan Yuan Tan and Davit Karapetyan, who goes on to steal the show in a strutting solo that could come straight out of Robbins’ work for the Broadway stage.

But nobody steals the stage for long in this ensemble work for ten soloists as they group and regroup in a flirty trio that morphs into a quartet and on and on through mazurkas, waltzes, nocturnes and scherzos that beguile the ear just as the stage pictures charm the eye. Vitor Luiz also exhibits amazing technique, partnering a lovely Mathilde Froustey. A trio of girlfriends gossips and a wonderful pas de six may be the best thing in the show.

But wait, there is the push and pull of courtship and the melting ache of desire as Tan bourrées around Karapetyan — before they quarrel and break up. Lorena Feijoo, the vampy Girl in Green, arrives late to the party but eventually makes quite a splash as men enter and look her over, one by one. The conclusion holds all the nostalgia of every goodbye ever said. And then the re-formed pairs walk offstage, hand in hand, and the music simply ends, as it inevitably must.

“Dances at a Gathering” is one of the loveliest works in all ballet repertory and, in its simplicity and artfulness, only grows stronger with the passage of time — which may be the point.

Nothing simple about choreographer-in-residence Yuri Possokhov’s “Swimmer,” which had its premiere in San Francisco a year ago. This is a big, noisy, sprawling work, full of some of the most amazing projections (from a send-up of “Mad Men” to the changing landscape of the sea — scenic design by Alexander V. Nichols, video by Kate Duhamel).

Loosely based on John Cheever’s iconic short story of the same name, it centers on a bored suburban man who spends a day swimming from pool to pool in his tony neighborhood looking for — what? His destiny? His lost youth? Love? Excitement? Meaning? We’ll never know, since the choreographer has thrown in everything but the kitchen sink: a quickie office affair that may or may not have happened; a bit of Bollywood; Nabokov’s “Lolita”; a touch of Edward Hopper’s painting “Nighthawks”; and a scene in an aquarium. The section “Catcher in the Rye,” set against projections of waving fields of grain, utilizes the little boys of the San Francisco Ballet School. Either this is the swimmer searching for his childhood or it makes no sense at all.

But maybe sense is not the point here. The work is a showcase for the eponymous male lead (Taras Dimitro, who does it proud) which makes some sense as Possokhov is a former principal dancer from both the Bolshoi and San Francisco Ballets.

Set to original music by Shinji Eshima, with interpolations by Tom Waits and others, masterfully conducted by Martin West, it is perhaps most powerful near the end, where the corps, dressed as waves (costume design by Mark Zappone) engulf the swimmer to the strains of Dies Irae, the Catholic Mass for the dead. Is this the watery ending the swimmer is seeking? Or just another stunning stage picture offered up for our entertainment?

We’ll never know. But entertaining it is, just not very important. And, after the sheer elegance of “Dances at a Gathering,” that’s kind of a letdown.

Suzanne Weiss

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