Out There :: Chlorinated Choreography

  • by Roberto Friedman
  • Saturday March 26, 2016
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San Francisco Ballet dancers in choreographer Yuri Possokhov's Swimmer, part of this season's Program 5
San Francisco Ballet dancers in choreographer Yuri Possokhov's Swimmer, part of this season's Program 5

Even though its two dances were repeats from last season's fare, San Francisco Ballet's Program 5 at the War Memorial Opera House was an unadulterated delight. Out There attended last Friday night's performance.

"Dances at a Gathering" is a masterpiece by choreographer Jerome Robbins set to timeless piano music by composer Frederic Chopin. Set on a bare stage, its dancers identified only by the color of their costumes, the piece plays out as the dancers cavort singly, in pairs and groups, to Chopin's mazurkas, waltzes and other solo piano pieces ably performed on Friday night by pianist Natal'ya Feygina. Our eye was caught especially by Vanessa Zahorian (Pink), Taras Domitro (Brown) and Luke Ingham (Purple), but all 10 SFB dancers distinguished themselves.

Then choreographer Yuri Possokhov's multimedia Americana extravaganza Swimmer returned from its world premiere last season, and OT was happy to welcome it back. To a grab-bag of music by composers Shinji Eshima, Tom Waits, Kathleen Brennan, and Gavin Bryars, Possokhov offered a reverie of Mad Men-era American suburbia as seen through Russian eyes. Very loosely set on a short story by John Cheever, with odd digressions into J.D. Salinger, Jack London, Vladimir Nabokov and Edward Hopper, the piece packs a solid visual and musical punch. On Friday night, SFB principal dancer Joseph Walsh was a black-haired bombshell packed into a blue swimsuit. He has a helluva backstroke.

Concrete Poetry

It's only because we were in Amoeba Records to pick up another CD that we came across a used copy of late American composer Robert Ashley's last opera "Concrete" (Lovely Music, 2008). Big Ashley fan here, since we first encountered his seminal "opera for television," "Perfect Lives." We snapped up the 2-CD "Concrete" at once.

It's classic late Ashley, a libretto for four voices who sing their lines in a given tempo with their choice of pitch, speech nuance and inflection. Its various parts alternate between "discussions," fugue-like compositions for mixed voices, and arias in the form of solo stories, distributed equally to the singers. The stories follow from the reminiscences of an old man, as indicated the title of the first piece, "The Old Man Lives in Concrete."

It's hard not to take the title both literally - i.e., the concrete of the old man's urban environment - and figuratively. That is, there is nothing abstract about Ashley's work, it's all told in concrete anecdotes set in specific times and places. The four singers, Joan La Barbara, Sam Ashley, Thomas Buckner, and Jacqueline Humbert (orchestra live mixing and processing: Tom Hamilton), are all regulars in Ashley's operas, and they each bring a distinctive style and voice to the material.

One anecdote, from the solo piece "Interchangeability," caught our queer ear. The old man tells the story of a musician in his jazz band: "At one of his club engagements the saxophone player meets a woman/who is the first woman for whom he has any affection./Her name is Billie./He takes her home after the engagement/and sees her a few times afterwards.

"One night he gets a call from the Los Angeles police./The policeman says that they have in custody/a man who is charged with philandering,/possibly prostitution/and various other charges./The man tells the police that our friend will put up the bail money./The policeman says the man's name is William.

"Our friend says he knows no man named William./The policeman says that the man/tells the police that our friend will know him as Billie."

Interchangeability indeed.

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