David H. Koch Theater
New York, New York
June 25, 27, 2014
“The Second Detail;” “Resonance;” “Cacti”
“Symphony in Three Movements;” “Afternoon of a Faun;” “ Plan to B;” “Bella Figura”
-- by Jerry Hochman
It was your typical Boston/New York rivalry weekend. Cream Pie vs. Cheesecake. Baked Beans vs. French Fries. Red Sox vs. Yankees. And Boston Ballet vs. American Ballet Theatre at Lincoln Center. The winners, at least for the last ‘rivalry’, were the ballet audience that got to see both companies.
If you haven’t seen Boston Ballet in a long time, as I hadn’t until the company’s current visit to New York, the final stop in its year-long 50th Anniversary celebration, then you’re in for a pleasant surprise. Based on the two programs presented last week at the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center, the company has an interesting, impressive, and eclectic repertoire, excellent dancers, and a spirit that’s palpable and exciting.
The dances selected by Artistic Director Mikko Nissinen for this New York engagement appear to have been chosen to display the breadth of the company dancers’ abilities. That they did. There were contemporary pieces, an iconic Balanchine ballet; a Nijinksy classic, and a clever comic dance. What there wasn’t was a classical piece, which raises questions. But that aside, based on the dances performed, this is a company that wears its youthful vibrancy on its sleeve. It’s a refreshing dynamic – and that I saw nearly half of ABT’s principal dancers at Friday’s performance might be further indication that something quite exciting is happening in Boston.
First things first – it was a pleasure to see Erica Cornejo back to New York. Now a Boston Ballet principal, she was a well-respected ABT soloist, and her departure was one of those that stung. Aside from adding something classical, had I had the opportunity, I would have wanted Agnes deMille’s “Rodeo” on the program, just to see Ms. Cornejo dance the Cowgirl again.
As interesting and eclectic as Boston Ballet’s repertoire is, and as talented as the Boston Ballet dancers are, the programs were a mixed bag, with the second more successful than the first. I’ll begin with the second program – which allows me to save the best for last: the hit of the visit, the first program’s concluding piece, “Cacti.”
If you’re going to bring coals to Newcastle, it had better be high quality coal. By leading off its second program with George Balanchine’s “Symphony in Three Movements,” not only in the city where Balanchine worked his choreographic magic but in the house that Balanchine built, where his company lives, and where the ballet is a regular and much admired constituent of that company’s repertoire, Boston Ballet showed incredible in your face chutzpah. That the dancers pulled it off shows how accomplished this company now is.
“Symphony in Three Movements” is one of Balanchine’s masterpieces. It is classical and modern and avant garde and visually stunning. It’s also a tough piece of work to do right. While it’s not at New York City Ballet’s level (the lead dancers can do the steps, but couldn’t contribute the stylistic nuances that NYCB’s dancers provide), it was a very well-executed, appropriately paced (i.e., fast) performance, that did justice to the ballet and is testament to the Boston Ballet dancers’ quality. The difference may be ‘congenital’ – NYCB dancers seem born with Balanchine in their genes, it’s not a style that’s grafted on. This is most evident in the performances by the lead dancers: Lia Cirio and Lasha Khozashvili, Misa Kuranaga and Jeffrey Cirio, and Rie Ichikawa and Bradley Schlagheck. In the last NYCB performance of it that I reviewed, from February, 2013, these leads were danced by Sterling Hyltin and Amar Ramasar, Savannah Lowery and Andrew Scordato, and Tiler Peck and Daniel Ulbricht. It’s unfair to compare the Boston Ballet leads with these NYCB dancers, although they all executed admirably. But the fact that I can reference them in the same sentence, and commend their performances (to me, the closest were Ms. Kuranaga, Mr. Cirio, and Ms. Ichikawa), shows how good they were. It was a very impressive performance.
Any dance choreographed by Jiri Kylian is a visual feast, and “Bella Figura,” the piece that concluded Friday’s program, is one of his most exciting and beautiful pieces. The dance, which premiered in 1995 with the Nederlands Dans Theater and had its Boston Ballet premiere in 2011, is a striking example of Mr. Kylian’s choreographic creativity and compelling stagecraft. But “Bella Figura” is one of those dances as to which the whole is less than the sum of its parts; to me, as a complete work, it failed to do more than reference beautiful figures in choreographically interesting ways. The component parts are so wonderful, however, l that I don’t really care that the piece doesn’t gel into a coherent whole. Indeed, a suite of moving visual images may have been all that Mr. Kylian intended.
From the outset, the piece is about beautiful bodies on display. The production signals this even before the dance ‘formally’ begins, while the audience is filing into the theater: the curtain is open and the stage is filled with dancers rehearsing’ (but obviously this rehearsal is choreographed). And above these seven dancers are two more bodies, one male and one female, naked and encased in a cocoon hoisted above the stage action, but fully visible to the audience, as if they were overhead ‘framed’ examples of the clothed ‘bella figura’ dancers we see below them.
But it’s more than just about beautiful bodies. It’s also brilliant choreography and stagecraft – beautiful choreographed figures (like ‘figures’ in figure skating). From another choreographer, the moves that Mr. Kylian imposed on his dancers might appear too much, as if he were trying to match every musical beat and stuff as much movement into a phrase as possible. But here, it all worked. I particularly liked Mr. Kylian’s use of hands and arms, and his utilization of curtains as an ingredient in the stage action – enrobing dancers, partially hiding them, and compressing the space in which they moved. But the piece doesn’t work as more than a collection of scenes – a collection of interestingly displayed moving bodies, either individually, as pairs, or in varied other combinations. The dancers included Ms. Ichikawa, a compelling presence throughout the piece, Kathleen Breen Bombes, Ms. Cornejo, Sarah Wroth, Petra Conti (who made a particularly vivid impression), Altan Dugaraa, Yury Yanofsky, Paul Craig, and Sabi Varga. (But one cautionary comment: as I left the theater, I saw several parents with young children in tow, looking very angry. In the future, it might be prudent to advise potential attendees that this dance contains nudity.)
Rumors to the contrary, I was not around to see the 1912 premiere of “L’Apres Midi d’une Faune” with Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes. But in the early 1980s, the Joffrey Ballet revived ‘Faune’ in an evening dedicated to Diaghilev, which featured Rudolf Nureyev (which I saw live). It’s unfair to compare the Boston Ballet cast of “Afternoon of a Faun,” the second piece on Thursday’s program, with the cast at that performance: Mr. Nureyev as the Faun, and Charlene Gehm, one of ballet’s most stunningly beautiful ballerinas, as the lead nymph. But Boston Ballet deserves credit for reviving this iconic dance and for its highly effective presentation, one that made it much more than a museum-quality reproduction. Although he couldn’t possibly transmit Mr. Nureyev’s primitive and feral qualities, because no one could, Altan Dugaraa made a valiant effort and was a dominating presence. And Ms. Cornejo was a regal lead Nymph, who brought class and controlled but explosive power to her performance. They were supported by Nymphs Dawn Atkins, Emily Mistrata, Brittany Stone, Brittany Summer, Kimberly Uphoff, and Sarah Wroth. (In a few years, keep an eye out for Ms. Stone. I can’t comment on her dancing ability, since I saw so little of her, but she has the ‘look’ to pull off a lead Nymph.)
Of the dances I’ve seen by Jorma Elo, Boston Ballet’s Resident Choreographer, “Plan to B,” which had its world premiere with Boston Ballet in 2004, is the best. To contemporary music by Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber, a late 17th Century Bohemian-Austrian composer and violinist with a reputation as one of that eras finest musicians, the piece is electrifying to watch from the first minute, and features an essentially ballet vocabulary in a contemporary context. Even when it slows down, it still moves with a modern intense pulse, filled with arching legs and windmill arms. It’s an abstract piece, but it’s not just dancers moving in space; there seems to be an underlying purpose to it – a sense that something will happen, a ‘plan to be’ discovered later. Although there’s no sense of a train in motion, and the dances are not alike, as I watched it I felt myself thinking of emotional similarities to Christopher Wheeldon’s “Danse a Grande Vitesse,” which was created on the Royal Ballet two years later. My only criticism is that the ballet ended too abruptly, like a sudden crash. Dusty Button, Whitney Jensen, Bo Busby, Mr. Cirio, John Lam, and Mr. Varga were the electrifying dancers.
Thursday’s program opened with William Forsythe’s “The Second Detail.” Although I appreciated the dancers’ impeccable execution, and understand that it’s Boston Ballet’s ‘signature’ piece, to me there was too much going on choreographically, without any sense that the choreographer was doing more than stuffing as much movement into the piece as possible, and keeping the dancers in constant motion but not saying anything. Except he seemed to be trying to say something – a small sign, like a cemetery footstone, appeared downstage center with the word “THE” on it, which as I recall was kicked over at the end of the piece. There had to have been a purpose to this, but whatever it was eluded me. Perhaps it’s a reference to there being a better (or at least different) way to have ballet steps performed -- his (Mr. Forsythe’s) way, as opposed to ‘THE’ way it’s supposed to be. But if that was its purpose, Balanchine did it better, and without having to signal his intent. It’s a thrilling piece to watch (despite the numbing score by Mr. Forsythe’s frequent collaborator Thom Willems), but more for its non-stop motion and dancer-filled stage rather than its innovative quality.
“The Second Detail” was succeeded in the opening program by “Resonance,” a piece by former Paris Opera Ballet etoile Jose Martinez. Commissioned by Boston Ballet, the piece premiered earlier this year. It’s a ballet that’s trying to say something, and it has an emotional, romantic, lyrical tone (befitting the Franz List music), but it doesn’t go anywhere. What it has is a sense of mirror images, of choreographic echoes (for example, one dancer slowly enters as the piece begins, thinking about something, and at the end of the piece, after costumes are changed, the dancer exits the same way), but this isn’t enough to carry the piece. It was well performed by lead dancers Alejandro Virelles, Ms. Cirio, Ms. Button, and Mr. Khozashvilli, and a sixteen dancer corps.
“Cacti,” the final dance on the first program, is a hoot – and because it doesn’t aspire to being more than a thoroughly entertaining hoot, it was the success of the visit. I haven’t laughed so much in …I can’t remember when I’ve ever laughed so much. And not because it’s belly-laugh funny, but because it’s so clever, and was so brilliantly executed by Boston Ballet’s dancers.
If you’ve ever wondered what the Olympic Games opening ceremony might look like if the games were held in, say, Freedonia (from “Duck Soup”), see “Cacti.” As the curtain opens, you see a quartet of musicians spread across the stage, downstage, playing the first section’s accompanying music (assembled, improvised, and composed by committee, and which included music by Haydn, Beethoven, Mahler, and American musician Andy Stein). Behind them are what look like platforms. As the stage brightens, you see dancers lying flat on the platforms. The dancers gradually rise, and start “playing” music on the platforms, as if they were putting on a show of synchronized drumming – the kind of galvanizing percussion that marked the opening ceremony of the Olympic games in Beijing. But very quickly the action takes a different turn – the dancers start banging on anything -- themselves, each other – whatever they can reach, making “music” to accompany, and enhance, the music being played by the musicians (who by this point have moved to positions behind the platforms). And then you realize that the point of “Cacti” is that there is no point – except maybe to show that not having a point is the point. And when you stop trying to figure out what’s going on, you can figure out what’s going on.
This is not a dry, ‘sophisticated’ ballet comedy such as Jerome Robbins’s “The Concert,” or, going back a bit, Jules Perrot’s “Pas de Quatre.” And it’s not the Trocks. The brainchild of Swedish choreographer Alexander Ekman, “Cacti” (which had its Boston Ballet premier last month (its world premiere, with Nederlands Dans Company 2, was in 2010) tickles your brain as well as your eyes and ears. Explaining it, or even describing it, would spoil it – assuming I could explain it. You don’t just ‘see the music’. You see the dancers ‘be the music.’ Sort of. And you don’t just see performers dancing to music or creating it, in the second part you also see performers dancing to a pre-recorded ‘concurrent’ conversation (not a pre-recorded video – a taped conversation of the dancers' in-performance 'thoughts'). And you see a brilliant hodgepodge of intelligent and zany choreography, and dance executed with extraordinary skill, and with the razor sharp timing and precision of a first rate comedy act. Or a Marx brother. Or a circus trapeze act. With no net. And you see cacti. Lots of cacti.
While I spend a little quiet time pondering the hidden meaning of this piece, I’ll end this review, if I can bring it to an end, if it ever truly ends (you had to be there…), with this observation: during Boston Ballet’s five day engagement, across the plaza at Lincoln Center ABT was performing “Swan Lake.” Both pieces feature exquisite artistry. “Swan Lake” is a classic, “Cacti” isn’t. Yet. But “Cacti” has refined lunacy – a quality that “Swan Lake” lacks. If the situation presents itself again, deciding which performance to attend, if you could only attend only one, would be a close call. But ponder this: why watch a gaggle of swans when you could cuddle with cacti?