Young ballet choreographers show a penchant for literature. British wonder boy Liam Scarlett recently based a
ballet on a poem by William Blake (reviewed in these pages); another on W.H. Auden. But it’s rare that a ballet takes flight from a modern short
story. Russian ex-dancer Yuri Possokhov formed a lasting impression reading a John Cheever story in his youth, long before leaving the Bolshoi and becoming San Francisco
Ballet’s talented Choreographer in Residence. The story was “The Swimmer,” first published in 1964 in The New Yorker (turned into a synonymous movie with
Burt Lancaster)—a strange, moody, surreal piece of writing that isn’t easy to forget.
The story begins at a poolside. “It was a fine day. In the west there was a massive stand of cumulus cloud so like a city seen
from a distance— from the bow of an approaching ship— that it might have had a name. Lisbon. Hackensack. (…) His own house
stood in Bullet Park, eight miles to the south, where his four beautiful daughters would have had their lunch and might be
playing tennis. Then it occurred to him that by taking a dogleg to the south-west he could reach his home by water.”
Eight miles of swimming from pool to pool in an LA neighborhood: an iconic California story. The pool owners are all
friends, or are they? By the time of sundown, when the swimmer finally reaches his home, his friends are gone, his family has disappeared, the house is empty, and he is old.
It’s also rare that a 40-minute ballet creation uses a plethora of multimedia technologies and tricks, catching ballet up a bit with
rock shows and advanced opera/theater productions. Possokhov does it with splendid daring, Through video-projected pools,
diving docks and splashing water (by scenic designer Alexander V. Nichols and video designer Kate Duhamel), he pours his own
mythology of “Americana” into Cheever’s story and makes it his own. I missed the world premiere of Swimmer last year and was
grateful that it was brought back for an encore as part of Program 5 this spring (combined with the reprise of Jerome Robbin’s Dances at a Gathering).
The ballet begins with the unnamed “Swimmer” (lithe, athletic
Cuban principal Vitor Luis) in a cartoon setting of “home sweet home,” a fifties idyll of the perfect family. The cardboard-cut-out
wife holds his hat at the ready as he takes off for his day. In quick shifts of inventive, humorous scenes, scenery slides up
and down, in and out at great speed, and real-life dancers are cleverly interjected into the surreal, size-shifting projections.
There is so much to see on that stage that at times one can’t quite see the dance, but that seems okay in a piece bordering on
dance theater, or perhaps “stage theater.” Possokhov never overstates or tries too hard to push his choreography into the
center of attention; his ideas are enough in themselves, and this confidence has served him well in all his creations for the company (among them Magrittomania and Raku).
The Swimmer rides a hilarious cartoon bus to town, to a “Mad Men”-style office with secretaries draped over the laps of bosses;
then the stage opens up to the first pool party. A Hollywood crowd in bathing suits and cocktail attire shimmies with drinks
in hand; starlets perform a take on “Diamonds are a Girls Best Friend,” and the Swimmer loosens up, gets out of his office clothes and into his swim-trunks.
We see his over-sized video silhouette dive from a raised dock into the green pool. Water splashes in brilliant pop colors and
shoots up to the rafters. Now naked except for his swim trunks, he seems unaware that he casts a vulnerable figure among the
wildly colored party crowds. Choreography and lighting keep him isolated in solos that evoke swimming and diving movements—body-torques, stretched out arms, dolphin-curved
back—in beautiful simplicity, without getting literal. Replacing Cuban Principal Taras Dimitro from the opening performance,
Brazilian Principal Vitor Luiz dances with impressive sensuous fluidity and precision, always retaining the energy of single
-minded forward-moving direction, without any awareness that he is swimming through a directionless life.
The Beautiful Life is Empty
The Swimmer’s repetitive journey reminded me of painter David Hockney’s eerie LA pool series and his film A Bigger Splash,
reflecting the same emptiness and superficialities of the “good life” that Cheever’s story draws on. Possokhov uses a musical
collage by Shinji Eshima (a double bassist from San Francisco Ballet’s own orchestra)—a pleasing mix of electronic sounds,
melodic orchestral lines and pop music. This is not their first collaboration. The composition binds together several songs by
Tom Waits, whose growly melancholy fits the moodiness of both Cheever’s story and the ballet.
A Hollywood fantasy calls up Lolita with a brief pas de deux
(Lauren Strongin and Tiit Helimets), then — another Splash! — the Swimmer dives into the darker moods of Edward Hopper’s
iconic painting “Night Hawks.” Hopper’s lonely guy at the bar looms as a huge projection over the stage while the woman in
red (Sofiane Sylve) and her companion (Luke Ingham) have stepped out from behind their night bar to dance a sultry and somewhat anxious pas de deux. When the Swimmer makes it
home, he enters a black stage space behind the cardboard front of his house. He is alone. This is where Cheever’s story ends:
“…and then, looking in at the windows, (he) saw that the place was empty.”
But Possokhov’s story continues. A sudden shift brings up a huge field of golden grain. The stage teems with a gaggle of boys
(from San Francisco Ballet School) frolicking and getting directions from the Swimmer-turned-“Catcher in the Rye.” But
this plunge into childhood memories darkens as the boys morph into young men (in the same clothes) and innocence turns into a
crescendo of testosterone-driven groupings and chases across the stage, set to a pounding score. The group movements have a
thrilling, dangerous intensity, begging the question whether sexual ambivalence is part of the Swimmer’s existential disconnection. Again, he ends up isolated and alone.
With a last dive, he is literally “at sea.” Now there is no pool edge
, no dock, no party or drink near him. There is nothing but water, a whole ocean to plow through. To the pounding rhythm of a
heartbeat, the Swimmer’s energetic breast-stroke is seen in brief flashes vertically upside-down, in bird’s-eye view, creating the
feel of distance, of a body soon going to disappear from view. The vertical vision is reminiscent of San Francisco Opera’s world premiere of Jake Heggie’s Moby Dick (reviewed in these pages) with its birds-eye views of boats and people floating in the ocean.
Possokhov calls the scene “Final Swim.” He brings the flashes of literal “swimming” to devastating effect as the Swimmer’s head
continues to bob like a tiny bouy in the gray, teeming waves that fill the entire stage. Perhaps he is making his way to shore or perhaps he is on his way to getting lost.
A few interesting excerpts from Swimmer can be seen in an interview with Yuri Possokhov on YouTube:
Liam Scarlett in Scene4:
Jake Heggie in Scene4:
Photos by Erik Tomasson