SF Ballet’s ‘Sensorium’ Combines Dance with VR and Instant Bed Sheet Couture

Kimberly Braylock-Olivier and Sean Bennett in Possokhov's Swimmer.

Kimberly Braylock-Olivier and Sean Bennett in Possokhov's ‘Swimmer’ (Photo: Erik Tomasson)

One of the most tantalizing films I’ve ever seen is The Swimmer, a surreal masterpiece from 1968 based on a John Cheever short story. It stars a middle-aged but still very buff and tan Burt Lancaster as a man who impulsively decides to swim home from a suburban summer garden party at a friend’s house by traversing all the many pools that lie between other people’s backyards and his own. As the afternoon unfolds, the bright, jovial atmosphere becomes broodingly autumnal, until our hero, exhausted in his Speedos after a series of unfortunate encounters and mishaps, finally arrives at his empty, derelict home.

Cheever’s chilly narrative, reimagined as a 41-minute ballet by company stalwart Yuri Possokhov, is the centerpiece of Sensorium, a splashy soiree of dance, music, food and booze organized by the San Francisco Ballet (SF Ballet) as a way to reel the millennial crowd into the War Memorial Opera House. The event did well last year, so it’s back again for a second iteration on Wednesday, Mar. 23.

Guests at SF Ballet's first Sensorium event in 2015
Guests at SF Ballet’s first Sensorium event in 2015 (Photo Erik Tomasson)

The choice of Possokhov’s Swimmer for this event makes sense: Of all the pieces in SF Ballet’s recent history, it’s likely to be one of the most impressive to a young, tech-savvy crowd. Waves of Tom Waits music and immersive video depicting mid-century scenes of suburban Americana sweep the dance along.

Beyond the proscenium, Sensorium gives audiences the chance to experience various pop-up events. These aren’t the usual thing. There’s a pair of massive 30-foot-long crashing wave video projections, inspired by Swimmer, that you can actually walk through because the video is projected onto “theatrical string” like a 70s-style beaded curtain.

And the art-tech company Teleport Labs has created a virtual reality film piece based on a snippets of a rehearsal of Pas/Parts — that’s the other ballet on the evening’s performance program choreographed by William Forsythe — that apparently can be experienced without those goofy-looking glasses and helmets.

Also, fashion designer Lan Jaenicke is setting up a “mini-atelier” in the lobby of the opera house where she and her team plan to create instant couture gowns tailor-made for a few lucky audience members…out of bed sheets.

But here’s what I’m personally most excited about: Professionals from the company are joining audience members on the dance floor after the main performance. After all, it’s not every day you get to boogie on down with ballet stars like Yuan Yuan Tan and Mathilde Froustey.

The San Francisco Ballet presents Sensorium on Wednesday, Mar. 23 at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco. Head here for more information. 

SF Ballet’s ‘Sensorium’ Combines Dance with VR and Instant Bed Sheet Couture 23 March,2016Chloe Veltman


Chloe Veltman

Chloe Veltman is senior arts editor at KQED.


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