San Francisco Ballet presents two very different works in the double bill which opened at the War Memorial Opera House this week – one a ballet of exquisite classical beauty – Jerome Robbins’ Dances at a Gathering – the other a dazzling multi-media spectacle – Yuri Possokhov’s Swimmer.
When Jerome Robbins was asked by Lincoln Kirstein of New York City Ballet to choreograph a new work for the Company in 1969, Robbins turned to the music which he’d first loved, and to which he’d danced as a child – that of Frédéric Chopin – for the creation of his sublime and lyrical Dances at a Gathering.
Dances at a Gathering has no story line as such. It simply portrays a group of ten dancers – friends, lovers – drifting in and out of a large open space, to some of Chopin’s loveliest piano pieces – his waltzes, mazurkas and études – brilliantly played in this performance by Roy Bogas. Just as Chopin’s music combined references to his Polish background with the finesse of Paris, where the music was written, so Robbins produced a work of classical beauty, with a nod to his own Eastern European heritage.
The dancers appear and disappear in pairs, or small groups, conveying a range of emotions representing the various stages of their relationships. The effect is captivating, as were the performances from a selection of some of San Francisco Ballet’s finest principal dancers – identified only by the color of their costumes – floaty dresses in delicate pastel shades of Green (Lorena Feijoo), Pink (Yuan Yuan Tan), Blue (Sasha De Sola), Yellow (Mathilde Froustey) and Mauve (Vanessa Zahorian), with the men in deeper hues of Brown (Joseph Walsh), Purple (Davit Karapetyan), Blue (Steven Morse), Brick (Vitor Luiz) and Green (Carlo Di Lanno).
Arguably, this is Robbins at his classical best – his genius underlined by the fact that this work was created on his return to New York City Ballet following his sensational success on Broadway.
Possokhov’s Swimmer, premiered by San Francisco Ballet last season, must be one of the most unusual and creative experiences to be staged by the Company.
A tribute by Possokhov to American culture, Swimmer was inspired by John Cheever’s surrealist short story which recounts the experiences of a man who ‘swims’ his way back home through a series of pools belonging to his neighbors, only to find his home empty and abandoned.
Possokhov doesn’t relate Cheever’s story as such, but through a series of fascinating scenic designs (by Alexander V Nichols) and video projections (by Kate Duhamel), he highlights, in each of these ‘pools’, an aspect of American culture, portraying impressions of works by Mike Nichols, Vladimir Nabokov, Edward Hopper, J D Salinger and Jack London. The tram journey was brilliantly conceived, the pool party was a riot of colorful characters, but it was the Catcher in the Rye and underwater sequences that produced a sensation of almost total immersion in the action.
Amidst a wealth of superb performances, Taras Domitro was brilliant in the title role. There were some memorable cameos. Tiit Helimets was never going to escape the wiles of Maria Kochetkova in their roles as Nabokov’s lovers, Possokhov perfectly captured the atmosphere of Hopper’s Nighthawks with the pas de deux by Lorena Feijoo and Vitor Luiz, and the sequence in which Domitro was accompanied by Wei Wang, Gennadi Nedvigin and Pascal Molat delivered a powerful combination of impressive technique and emotional thrust. The final movement – when they were joined by what appeared to be the entire complement of the male corps – was sensational, but ultimately we were left with the haunting vision of the swimmer, left to his lonely fate.
The orchestral score was devised Shinja Eshima – double bassist in both the San Francisco Ballet and San Francisco Opera orchestras – with the quirky and effective addition of four songs by the gravelly-voiced Tom Waits.
The San Francisco Ballet Orchestra – marvelous as always under the direction of Martin West – has its own celebration on March 25. The ensemble celebrates its 40th anniversary with a special concert at the newly renovated Herbst Theatre. For details, visit the San Francisco Ballet website.
San Francisco Ballet’s presentation of Dances at a Gathering and Swimmer runs at the War Memorial Opera House until March 22. For more information and to buy tickets, visit sfballet.org