John Cheevers’ The Swimmer (1964) takes its reader on a journey. A journey where one man navigates circumstance and his community, all while grappling with memory and loss. Swimming and treading water factor heavily in the short story, both metaphors for how the protagonist traverses his reality.
In 2015, San Francisco Ballet (SFB) Choreographer-in-Residence Yuri Possokhov brought an adaptation of this tale to ballet audiences with Swimmer. And this past Thursday, the one-act work returned, joining Wooden Dimes and Symphony #9 in Program 3 of SFB’s 2021 digital season. All three pieces were strong, though the program itself felt a bit curious.
Through Swimmer’s sequence of colorful, nostalgic, mid-century scenes, we see the main character’s (portrayed in an archival taping by Joseph Walsh) varied life stages and emotional states. In a morning breakfast scene, he looks content, albeit bored. A retro pool party brings fun, flirtation and social dance to the table. A later solo for Walsh was peppered with swimming motions – the curved arms of the front crawl, extended limbs of the backstroke. And a pas de deux for Sofiane Sylve and Luke Ingham was imbued with unending spins and directional changes, making it both romantic but turbulent in the same moment.
With scenic design by Alexander V. Nichols, costumes by Mark Zappone, lighting design by David Finn and video by Kate Duhamel, Swimmer is jam-packed with theatrical devices. It all works – it never feels like there is too much going on. Though speaking to that depth of design, Swimmer did seem an odd choice for a digital season. It is an SFB fan favorite, so there’s a definite popularity angle. But if you’ve seen it live, you know how visually immersive it is – vibrant, dynamic hues; imagery that not only captures water’s beautiful color, but also its movement and temperament. On a screen, that rich experience doesn’t come through. There was definitely an attempt to show the entire visual field, but that also had the consequence of making everything else onstage very small. Again, not critiques of the ballet, the performances nor the artistic contributions, just maybe not the best fit for digital viewing.
Swimmer was not the only source of nostalgia and circumstance on program 3. Danielle Rowe’s world premiere Wooden Dimes championed both. The highly anticipated film takes its audience back to the 1920s and introduces a chorus dancer (Sarah Van Patten) who has been singled out from the line as the next potential star. As Dimes progresses, duets, group dances and fantasy sequences demonstrate how that opportunity affects her, her marriage and her work environment. What is the cost of stardom?
The answer lies in two pas de deux, both performed by Van Patten and Luke Ingham, who plays her husband. The first occurs near the beginning of the film and has such a joyful and happy tone. Floating lifts, grand dips and exuberant extensions join much unison work, reflecting how the couple is on the same page as her career is about to take off. But as Dimes concludes, after fame has set in, we see the same couple dancing together, yet totally detached emotionally. They barely glance at each other and both reach out into space over and over again. Were they looking for something they had lost? Or something they still hoped could be found? Rowe delivered such a compelling arc, framed by the outstanding contributions of Dimes’ team: Nichols’ scenic vision, Jim French and Matthew Stouppe’s lighting landscape, Heath Orchard’s photographic direction. Emma Kingsbury’s costume design was on point for the 1920s theme, though from time to time some of the silhouettes did get in the way of the choreography.
Back in 2012, SFB and American Ballet Theatre co-commissioned a full evening of work from Alexei Ratmansky set to compositions by twentieth century Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich. Program 3’s opener, Symphony #9, is the first section of this Shostakovich Trilogy. I wondered how it would read to screen showing only one part of that larger piece – my understanding is that the ballet is meant to communicate parts of Shostakovich’s own life experience. Would the intended narrative threads come through without the other two chapters? The one-act certainly brought emotional tones, but to absorb the bigger picture I do believe you need all three parts. Still, Symphony #9 impressed on another level. When on its own, the ballet is a brilliant reflection of Shostakovich’s music. Its chromaticism, its syncopated timing, its Stravinsky-inspired dissonance. The pairing of small, delicate, precise steps with scalic passages – hops en pointe, fluttery petit allegro and crisp batterie. And lightning-fast phrases, which SFB handled with aplomb in this archival recording.
Mixed repertory events do not need a unifying theme. Occasionally they end up having one, but often bills have no particular throughline. I think these evenings work best when a company chooses one or the other – theme or no theme. Program 3 kind of existed in the middle. Symphony #9 was a great neo-classical opener marrying movement and music, whereas Swimmer and Dimes were both highly designed with a strong sense of time and place. Three lovely ballets, though maybe not the ideal grouping.