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San Francisco Ballet review – vintage glamour and Cheever's Swimmer reimagined

Lyndsey Winship
·3-min read

Australian choreographer Danielle Rowe has a clutch of stage works under her belt, but in lockdown she has turned to film-making. First it was funny ballet skits, and now she’s made her first major work for San Francisco Ballet, in their latest online triple bill. Wooden Dimes is the tale of a talented but naive 1920s showgirl named Betty (Sarah Van Patten), corrupted by success that splinters her marriage to solid but stressed-out accountant type Robert (Luke Ingham). It is not a wildly original conceit, but it has fizz, drama and vintage glamour – who doesn’t love drop waists, bobs and minimally styled deco designs? (There’s a story in the colour schemes of Emma Kingsbury’s costumes, which are nicely done.)

The work was created for film, which Rowe also directs, and there is a good eye for framing and detail, especially meaningful looks in the dressing-room mirror. The choreography is not heavyweight, but it works in service of the mood and story: the flirty pointe work of the chorus girls; the dressing room gestures woven into a busy routine. Rowe deftly illustrates the bland repetition of Robert’s desk job and makes Betty and Robert’s early duet swell with romance. Van Patten’s character is sketchily drawn, with not much more than her bright smile and chin lifted towards the spotlights (Ingham gets more to work with), but there is unexpected poignancy in the ballet’s conclusion. Rowe certainly has skill, style and ideas to build on.

Wooden Dimes is sandwiched between two archive recordings. Alexei Ratmansky’s Shostakovich #9 is part of 2012’s Shostakovich Trilogy, drawing on the composer’s life and music and Ratmansky’s Soviet upbringing. To read it through that prism, you can see the sense of shifting ground, of a composer who was in and out of favour, accepting then pushing the rules, a society perhaps one thing on the surface, another underneath.

The dancers fly through sleek, fleet and ordered phrases to excitable melodies, a picture of youthful confidence and vitality. Yet alongside this there are wistful, searching passages and a couple, Jennifer Stahl and Aaron Robison, with faces full of anxiety, he holding her tight and carefully moving her across the stage. The great moments here are not bombastic but subtle. As Stahl and Robison wait upstage to begin their first pas de deux, they rise on demi-pointe, a few centimetres of movement easily unnoticed, but a furtive, hopeful bloom of anticipation.

Swimmer (2015) is choreographer Yuri Possokhov’s take on a haunting short story by John Cheever, about a man living in upper-crust suburban America, who decides to swim home from a cocktail party by taking a route through all of the neighbours’ pools, his sense of identity unravelling along the way. Possokhov’s version is less clear than the text on the actual journey, or the interactions with those he meets, but it does capture some of the dreamlike surreality and a niggling sense of things being not quite right – for example when he uses the gravel voice of Tom Waits to soundtrack a couple dancing lightly in peach chiffon. There’s a creeping sense of loneliness and alienation and Possokhov does have something to add to Cheever’s story in the way Joseph Walsh, as the swimmer, only seems truly free when launching himself into the watery blue, smoothly spinning like a native creature, limbs moving as soundlessly as an expert diver slicing through the water.

The San Francisco Ballet’s 2021 digital programme 03 is available online until 24 March.