Swimmer, SF Ballet

Wading into the current fascination with 1960s culture, "Swimmer" dives and bobs along, neither drowning in excess nor floating as a completely coherent work.

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John Sullivan
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“Swimmer,” the latest work by Yuri Possokhov, San Francisco Ballet’s choreographer in residence, looks more like dance theater than true ballet. In the style of Martha Clarke, the piece draws on the panoply of modern stage technology — projections, lighting effects, moving platforms — to relate scenes based roughly on John Cheever’s short story, with a little J.D. Salinger, Vladimir Nabokov, and Jack London thrown in. It’s easy to dismiss Possokhov’s latest as a jumbled bit of multimedia (at times, it veers dangerously close to becoming “Mad Men: The Musical”), but the work deserves more than a flip putdown. It strives to recreate the 1960s’ obsession with material gain at the expense of personal fulfillment, and if its potpourri of ballet and literature and film succeeds only occasionally, you never quite give up on it achieving those ambitious aims.

It is certainly entertaining. The projections alone are among the most effective seen for this company, rivaling those used in the opera “Moby Dick” on the same stage a couple of years ago. Kate Duhamel has designed a number of clever videos to fit the various themes explored: cartoonish streetscapes, mod interiors and poolside environments, and (most effectively) the many aspects of water, from a cerulean splash to ominous gray waves. (She is aided by David Finn’s versatile lighting and Alexander V. Nichols’ flexible sets.) “Swimmer” is also fun to watch, clipping along at a breakneck pace, with a phantasmagoria of movement and color set to music composed by Shinji Eshima (aptly conducted by Martin West) and songs by Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan, heard in recordings of Waits’ lawnmower bass. The work presupposes familiarity with the Cheever story and, more important, the film with Burt Lancaster. But it goes further in attempting to explore the sixties’ lonely search for personal identity (hence, the overly long scene Possokhov created of prep-school boys and their grownup counterparts, seeking some kind of connection).

Despite the splash and dash, it’s questionable whether the 40-minute piece succeeds as a ballet. The choreography is at times beautiful, inventive, and exhilarating. There are touching pas de deux evoking young love (danced sensitively on April 15 by principal Maria Kochetkova, partnered by a surprisingly un-stiff Tiit Helimets) and then mature attraction about halfway into the story (the latter given an expert interpretation by principals Sofiane Sylve and Luke Ingham). But it is also, regrettably, full of Possokhovian shtick: the “swimming” mime (windmill arms and arching backs); the feverish angst, all high leaps and fast pirouettes, of the title character (danced on April 15 by Joseph Walsh, sharing the role at alternating performances with fellow principal Taras Domitro); the silly and entirely unnecessary aquarium interlude, with goofy sequined costumes and a shark projection that, in a “Jaws”-like maneuver, fills the scrim with a laughable panorama of piscine dentition; and an overwrought finale in which the title character, suspended mid-air behind a scrim, appears to be swimming ever downward in a metaphor for drowning. The whole thing could have used an editor, which prompts once more the question of what control Helgi Tomasson, the company’s artistic director, exerted during the germination/realization of this dance. None of these issues seems to have troubled the audience, which accorded the premiere an unqualified ovation (a tedious habit at the Opera House these days).

The two works preceding “Swimmer” on Program 7 offer ballet in a more traditional vein.

First up is Tomasson’s “Caprice,” set to Camille Saint-Saëns’ second symphony, with the adagio from his third thrown into the mix. Like many of Tomasson’s creations for the company he leads, this one is elegant and subdued, with an emphasis on restraint over exuberance. It premiered in 2014, so this year’s rendition has a smoother, less tentative feel. The best bits come in the first movement, where Tomasson has given his lead couple some inventive movement that goes beyond the usual assisted pirouette/développé/lift. On April 15, principals Maria Kochetchova and Davit Karapetyan, mismatched in body type and height and who lack chemistry overall, presented a rather stiff performance, as if they were performing in a dance competition rather than in the embracing clime of their adoring San Francisco fans. Others fared better, including the ageless Yuan Yuan Tan (partnered by fellow principal Luke Ingham in the second movement); she is still capable of an amazingly high kick and has happily abandoned that self-satisfied grin (at least in this piece). Overall, “Caprice” owes much to George Balanchine and the style of New York City Ballet, where Tomasson spent 15 years as a danseur noble, debuting in roles created for him by Balanchine and Jerome Robbins. The formations of solos and couples have a predictable look (no real criticism there), as do the ensembles. Typical of many of Tomasson’s works, the male solos are accorded the best steps, such as they are. Karapetyan comes alive again as a soloist, and it is in those moments when we watch him catapult high into the air that we have a glimpse of what Tomasson was looking for in this otherwise tame and even trivial endeavor — a reflection on his glory days as a dancer at NYCB. Perhaps that’s why he called it “Caprice.”

The piece in the middle of Program 7 was by far the most successful of the three presented, at least from the perspective of perfect choreography danced perfectly. George Balanchine’s “The Four Temperaments” has rightfully assumed its stature as one of a handful of seminal abstract (or “plotless”) ballets of the 20th century. It was first performed in 1946 and has never faded, becoming part of the repertory for nearly every major ballet company in our times. Its revolutionary originality, underpinned by Paul Hindemith’s spare yet dramatic score, seems unforced, as primal and urgent as the hip thrusts and angular bends it requires of its dancers (staged in San Francisco by former New York City Ballet dancer Bart Cook). When ballet writers speak of “architecture,” it is often in reference to this work, so bare and pure in its modern structure, yet so pleasing in its classical symmetry. In performing its various “humours” — the “Temperaments” of the title — the company’s dancers acquitted themselves admirably: Lonnie Weeks, a rising member of the corps, gave the “Melancholic” variation an appropriate gravity; principals Sarah Van Patten and Tiit Helimets danced the “Sanguinic” variation with the requisite detached precision; soloist Anthony Vincent, blessed with an expressive posterior, added a sensual dimension to the “Phlegmatic” variation; and corps member Kristina Lind dominated the stage with her ferociously in-control interpretation of the “Choleric” variation. The other stars of this performance were the 20 members of the ensemble, all of them exhibiting a mastery of Balanchine’s unconventional steps in dazzling unison, especially in the complicated finale, which comes as close to onstage fireworks as any ballet in the canon, classical or modern. They gave the work the level of devotion that Mr. B’s masterpiece demands, and their effort here would have made him smile.

John Sullivan

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