San Francisco Ballet
Caprice, The Four Temperaments, Swimmer
San Francisco, War Memorial Opera House
10 April 2015
If I had placed bets, I would have won the trifecta for the evening’s program featuring a world premiere by San Francisco Ballet’s choreographer-in-residence Yuri Possokhov, Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments and artistic director Helgi Tomasson’s Caprice. Possokhov’s latest work, Swimmer, would have beaten Michael Phelps, fins down, with medals for the Russian’s choreography, Alexander V. Nichols’s set design, Shinji Eshima’s commissioned music (other music by Tom Waits, Kathleen Brennan and Gavin Bryans), Mark Zappone’s costumes, David Finn’s lighting design and Kate Duhamel’s video design.
The curtain is already up when the piece begins with dim lights behind the scrim. A lone trumpet sounds, not a bright fanfare, but a melancholy tune like taps at a funeral. The percussion slowly joins in a sporadic dirge, then quickly accelerates to launch the action, fast and furious as the suburban rat race it portrays.
What follows is a kind of Rorschach test, but instead of inkblots, Possokhov presents a series of vignettes, “painted” boldly with colorful projected animation and video, energetic and intricate choreography and costumes that perfectly echo the times. The ten scenes are held loosely together by part of the story line from John Cheever’s “The Swimmer”. (In the story the main character decides to return home from a party by swimming across all the pools along the route back, but finds his house empty and grows disoriented as life becomes more and more surreal.) These episodes function as trigger points for the spectator’s imagination and offer the possibility of connecting one or more levels of memory, emotion, perception and even aesthetic appreciation.
It doesn’t really matter whether you get all the cultural references, many of them to the 1960s: Cheever, dances like the twist and swim, poolside parties, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks (from the ’40s), J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, even Jack London’s Martin Eden. For those watching who were born after the ’60s, the “keeping-up-with-the-Joneses” atmosphere of the early baby boomer years will still be familiar through television shows such as “Mad Men” or any number of TV series re-runs from that time.
Swimmer is one man’s journey from being the stereotypical breadwinner, commuting to his job in the city so he can support his family, to his own self-realisation in a kind of isolated freedom. At first his dips in the pool are recreational fun, yet also liberating. Then they become a surreal fantasy and finally the ultimate escape from life itself. The tone correspondingly moves from a frenetically paced depiction of his family and work life, slowing to a more leisurely rendering of Lolita and Nighthawks. Even though there is quite a lot of movement in the Catcher in the Rye section, it has moments of deep reflection. At the end, a meditative suspension of time envelops the stage as he swims alone, with projections of a man struggling in the ocean. (The man in the video is Possokhov himself!)
In a way, it is the path that many people take. The protagonist who has an enviable life, but feels there is more and seeks it out only to find that his dream is unattainable. He could be Prince Siegfried from Swan Lake – wealthy and privileged, yet unhappy that he must marry to please his family and the court. He seeks solace and runs to the lakeshore to hunt swans. He meets a magical creature to whom he swears undying love, only to unwittingly betray her, and throws himself into the lake (at least in some versions.) to escape his despair, while believing he will be united with his true love in death. Different plot but same emotions to the fore.
The first and second pieces on the program were Caprice and The Four Temperaments, respectively. The former is a rather formulaic romantic ballet to Camille Saint-Saëns’s Symphony No. 2, with the addition of the Adagio from his Symphony No. 3. It is lovely to look at – Holly Hynes charming costumes except for their nondescript flesh colour for the entire corps and Nichols’s illuminated Grecian columns. On opening night there was terrific dancing from leads Maria Kochetkova with Davit Karapetyan and Yuan Yuan Tan with Luke Ingham, and at second viewing with Sarah van Patten and Tiit Helimets in the roles of Tan and Ingham. Tomasson’s odd habit of creating movement phrases that don’t quite match up with the musical ones is mildly disconcerting for this critic. The choreography is easily forgettable, but the end result is an innocuous piece that pleases the audience.
Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments is quite the opposite. As with his Serenade, this work from 1947 can be seen again and again without it ever growing dated or tedious. It constantly offers the possibility of discovering ever more minute details in its ingenious structure. Conductor David LaMarche has a very dancerly touch with the Hindemith score. Instead of a clinical modern rendering, he reinforces the individuality of the four different humours with tangible humanness.
The Four Temperaments opening night lead dancers were excellent: Pascal Molat, in Melancholic, does not shy away from using his face and body expressively. The Sanguinic couple, Frances Chung and Joan Boada, are well-matched. Boada dances as if he were still the boyish young man who started with the company sixteen years ago, while Chung captures the same ease and warmth that he exudes. Karapetyan’s Phlegmatic showed both his technical and artistic gifts, and Sofiane Sylve is all sinewy, incisive perfection in Choleric. The other cast is equally good. In Melancholic, Lonnie Weeks, much missed last season while he recovered from an injury, is certainly back in top form, every movement coming from inner conviction. Anthony Vincent’s Phlegmatic is filled with exquisitely lengthened lines and arcs. Only Kristin Lind needed to find more sharply-defined energy in Choleric. She did a very credible job on opening night in the First Theme section with her elegant limbs and enviable insteps, but here she needs to dig deeper and let the rage out.