What is clear from the instant the curtain goes up, revealing the screen filling the proscenium arch, is that Swimmer, the world première that closed San Francisco Ballet’s Programme 7, is as much a media work as it is a dance piece. And in terms of media, sets and lighting, the 40-minute work is as carefully choreographed as an intricate tango, timed to the split second.

Choreographer in Residence Yuri Possokhov used the John Cheever short story, of the same title, as the overall structure of a series of vignettes using cultural American moments from the mid 20th century. In the 1964 short story a man at a cocktail party decides to 'swim' home, using the various pools lodged in his neighbors' gardens. It’s a kind of heroic journey that somewhere in the middle morphs into a lifetime. He begins as a young man, full of vigor and alcohol, and arrives home an exhausted old man, whose life and house are empty, ready to be discarded.

Where Cheever’s swimmer’s voyage is calibrated by the people who own the pools he swims through, Possokhov uses the voyage to portray an America that he, as an outsider from a different culture, is haunted by. The program notes point out that Possokhov uses “works of iconic American art that he discovered as a young man, long before he came to the United States.”

Each pool Possokhov’s Swimmer dives in comes from a hodge-podge of the 20th-century American imagination: Rosalind Russell and Marilyn Monroe swanked out in red sequins in Gentleman Prefer Blondes, Lolita and Humbert Humbert from another Russian’s classic portrayal of American sexual mores, the couple in Edward Hopper’s desolate portrayal of late night urban loneliness, Nighthawks, an aquarium of Copacabana fish meant to reference Mike Nichols’ The Graduate, and Holden Caulfield’s vision of catching children as they fall through fields of rye.

Possokhov says that this set of mostly literary images is comprised of things that “stuck [with me] so many years, I can’t get out from them.”. He notes:  “I don’t know why, but they hooked me.” And there is a kind of randomness to them that can only be explained by a personal and emotional connection.

What holds the piece together is the formidable visual talent of Kate Duhamel, the video designer, along with Alexander V. Nichols’ television screen-like envisioning of the sets. The imagery used in the video projections and sets combines the stark geometries of late ’50s advertising with a more effusive rendering of pool water, somewhat reminiscent of David Hockney’s LA pool series. What is eyebrow-raising impressive is the way that the live figures sync into the media projections. As the Swimmer moves through his ranch-style home he interacts with shower, breakfast table and newspaper, kisses his cardboard wife and spins his cardboard children. The animated bus ride from home to office was a marvel of images and bodies. And the final swim through the waters of the pools, which had become oceanic in scale, took on an iconic beauty of its own.

Taras Domitro danced the role of the Swimmer with a strut and sureness that was impressive. It takes real swagger to take your bows in a swimsuit and hold the center of attention onstage when you are surrounded by a raft of wildly costumed dancers. (Mark Zappone designed the flash costumes.)

Besides the conceptual grandness of Swimmer, Possokhov’s strongest suit was in the pas de deux work of the various iconic couples, which was in turn danced with the company’s usual verve and technical excellence. Maria Kochetkova and Tiit Helimets danced Nabokov’s illicit lovers, Lorena Feijoo and Vitor Luiz Hopper’s poignant café drinkers, and Yuan Yuan Tan was the lovely dancer with the Latin trio back-up.

Swimmer was set to a compilation of four songs by Tom Waits, woven together by composer Shinji Eshima. The choice of Waits’ growly voice also seemed an idiosyncratic choice – the kind of singing that might appeal as typically and perhaps exotically American to a culturally different listener. Though Waits is somewhat a cult figure in the States, his albums have achieved more success in other countries. 

Helgi Tomasson’s Caprice opened the program. A romantic ballet set to movements from Saint-Saëns’ Symphonies no. 2 and 3, Caprice offered the abstract, the lush, and the muscular in the form of duets, the allegro here performed by Maria Kochetkova and Davit Karapetyan and the long sensual adagio by Yuan Yuan Tan and Luke Ingham. We don’t often, sadly, pay much attention to the partnering skills of the male dancers, but duets of this intricacy are impossible without utterly seamless partnering – and both Karapetyan and Ingham excelled.

And set midway was Balanchine’s ever-wonderful The Four Temperaments. Go to see this program if for no other reason than to indulge yourself in the stark elegance and wit of this classic work, choreographed in 1946 for the Ballet Society, and set to the commissioned music of Paul Hindemith.