San Francisco Ballet’s Program 5 marks the midway point of the company’s season, and the ballets presented in Wednesday night’s double bill seemed to reflect that, cleaving the night into two distinctly different viewing experiences. Jerome Robbins’ timeless 1969 classic, Dances at a Gathering, opened the program on the War Memorial Opera House stage, followed by a hip, effervescent multimedia take on 1960’s American culture in Yuri Possokhov’s Swimmer.

Yuan Yuan Tan and Davit Karapetyan in Robbins' <i>Dances at a Gathering</i> © Erik Tomasson
Yuan Yuan Tan and Davit Karapetyan in Robbins' Dances at a Gathering
© Erik Tomasson
Back in 1969, Robbins set his ballet on dancers from the New York City Ballet with the intention of depicting both a sense of community and each person’s individuality. Stagers Jean-Pierre Frohlich and Jenifer Ringer Fayette sought to replicate this spirit. There are seventeen vignettes of duets, trios, solos, ensembles, with the dancers differentiated by the color of their costumes (designed by Joe Eula). All is set to Chopin solo piano: études, mazurkas, waltzes, a lone nocturne and scherzo. It’s lovely, made further so on Wednesday night by pianist Roy Bogas’ nuanced interpretation.

A Man in Brown (Joseph Walsh) commences the ballet, arriving onstage in silence, pensive until a memory inspires him and the music, and he begins to dance. All ten dancers offer, in turn, their thoughtful contribution. Vanessa Zahorian (Mauve) with Carlo Di Lanno (Green) shared an affecting pas de deux that showcased their grace and extensions. Robbins whimsy surfaced here: chaîné turns off pointe; hands pushing outward with flexed wrists. Likewise, in another fine pas de deux, a lift for Yuan Yuan Tan (Pink), partnered by Davit Karapetyan (Purple), had her extending her legs into a 180 degree split and quickly bringing in her feet to touch in center, like a crab’s claw closing and opening. Later, Karapetyan and Walsh playfully demonstrated both collaboration and one-upmanship in their own duet. Sasha De Sola (Blue), new to the role this year, charmed alongside Tan in a pas de trois. Vitor Luiz (Brick) delivered high, ultra-airborne jumps that were followed by a whimsical cartwheel. Lorena Feijoo (Green) was full of personality, dancing before an indifferent audience of passing men, with comedic effect, offering a “who cares?” shrug at the end before leaping offstage. In the final vignette, all the dancers gathered as Walsh tenderly touched the ground, a symbolic “we are here” gesture. Afterward, all solemnly regarded something in the sky – a storm, an ominous cloud? – eyes following its progress, united together as the community Robbins had envisioned. 

Maria Kochetkova and Tiit Helimets in Possokhov's <i>Swimmer</i> © Erik Tomasson
Maria Kochetkova and Tiit Helimets in Possokhov's Swimmer
© Erik Tomasson
Swimmer, the night’s second ballet, has its own reference to community, but in its delivery, the two ballets couldn’t be more different. Based on John Cheever’s 1964 short story, it chronicles the surrealist journey a suburbanite man takes, via his neighbors’ swimming pools, on his way home to a place he will ultimately find is gone. Possokhov’s creation is an eye-popping multimedia extravaganza, bringing together the collaborative talents of Kate Duhamel (video design), Alexander V. Nichols (scenery), David Finn (lighting) and Mark Zappone (costumes), set to a score by Shinji Eshima which incorporates Tom Waits’ growly singing voice. It brilliantly meshes to form a ballet the likes of which I’ve never seen, nor even considered. Watching the opener through a scrim, images superimposed, the set depicting a cardboard cutout family at the table, I had a dizzying sense of watching a black and white television show, or a clever advertisement from the 1960’s, that then morphed into real life, followed by a snappy series of scenes. It was amazing – and exhausting – to behold.

Much of the imagery throughout the ballet stems from Possokhov’s youthful take on American culture in the 1960’s (from a Soviet Russian perspective, to boot). We see Hollywood glitter, beautiful bodies, bikinis and martinis. Literature and film references include Mike Nichols’ The Graduate, Nabokov’s Lolita, Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye and Jack London’s “Martin Eden” (the latter a bit too obscure for most audience members to appreciate). There’s a vignette depicting Edward Hopper’s famous Nighthawks painting, and, of course, pools, water, aquariums, the 1960’s cocktail culture.  

Taras Domitro in Possokhov's <i>Swimmer</i> © Erik Tomasson
Taras Domitro in Possokhov's Swimmer
© Erik Tomasson
As The Swimmer, Taras Domitro was sublime, with high jumps, powerful leaps, and a complete dedication to the role, from youthful vitality to the conclusion’s existential despair. Other standouts include Tiit Helimets and Maria Kochetkova in an alluring, Lolita-esque pas de deux, and Yuan Yuan Tan, all long limbs and gorgeous extensions, costumed as a marine version of the Firebird as she danced with Domitro. A men’s ensemble toward the end, too, proved deeply satisfying to watch. 

Mostly, one is struck by the sheer imagination and ingenuity Possokhov has employed. In the hands of a lesser talented team, this idea might have sunk under its own weight. And yet, in today’s multimedia-saturated digital era, as dance companies seek to attract young audiences, this might very well be the kind of thing required. Fortunate for all of us, Swimmer succeeds.