Friday, March 2, 2007

A night to remember

As the curtain rose on Jorma Elo’s new dance for Boston Ballet, Brake the Eyes (at left), everyone was holding their breath: would it mark a rebound from the failure of last year’s Carmen, or instead ratify the common impression that Plan to B had been a fabulous fluke?

Well, you couldn’t quite hear it, but within minutes the entire audience had let out a collective sigh of relief: Brake the Eyes was going to be fine, even superb. To be honest, it’s not quite a masterpiece – particularly when set next to Christopher Wheeldon’s Polyphonia – and Elo hasn’t so much developed as dodged his weak spots (narrative, cumulative depth); but Brake the Eyes is thrilling in so many ways that it’s mean-spirited to carp. Instead, we should give thanks that he’s found ways to extend, if not advance, his idiom – and then sing hosannas for the rest of the program, which is perhaps the best thing Boston Ballet has done in years; indeed, possibly the finest evening of dance seen in these parts since the debut of Mark Morris’s L’Allegro some dozen years ago.

Perhaps in reaction to the raspberries for Carmen, this time out, Elo has turned reflective. Setting his choreography to a mix of Mozart and a droning soundscape by his girlfriend (I know, it sounds like trouble, but don’t worry) – the choreographer conjures an intriguing meditation on his current plight, and perhaps the cultural plight of ballet itself: Larissa Ponomarenko, Boston Ballet’s leading Russian-old-school avatar, wanders about the darkened stage in a damaged, discombobulated state, chirping Russian phrases to herself, and responding to the industrial throbs around her with quirky, bird-like bits of proto-choreography. Then, suddenly, it’s lights up, and rushes of headlong, amplified Mozart, with Ponomarenko enveloped in a technically brilliant corps that all but dashes through Elo’s trademark mix of swiveling combinations, spinning leaps, and shoulder-popping lifts. As in Plan to B, we can just sense a hurtling harmony, a kind of off-center balance, in all the morphing movement; this may be ballet by MTV (a friend has dubbed the style “x-treme ballet”), but it’s still alive with grace and joy; Elo hasn’t succumbed to the dead S&M chic that animates the dances of, say, William Forsythe, where everybody seems to hanging around, waiting for the Viagra to kick in. And while I don’t feel the dance develops much, its energy is intoxicating (in the rapid runs of the Mozart, Elo justifies his own choreographic speed), and bits of hope seem to glint through Ponomarenko’s disoriented returns; a little laugh occasionally ripples through her, and her movements began to echo those of the larger ensemble: perhaps, Elo is saying, there is a way for ballet to not only respond to the high-tech culture at large, but even master it.

There is, however, no doubt of the mastery of Polyphonia (Larissa Ponomarenko and Boyko Dossev, above; photos by Gene Schiavone) – Christopher Wheeldon is by now the anointed heir to Balanchine, and Polyphonia has already been elevated to the pantheon of greatness by none other than the New York Times. The good news is that it belongs there – even if Wheeldon is a bit backward-looking, while Elo is definitely inching forward. This ten-dance investigation of piano works by György Ligeti begins conventionally enough, but steadily bores deeper and deeper into both its own conventions and the abstract idiom of its music – something I’ve only seen Morris and Balanchine manage consistently before.

Balanchine, of course, gave us “modern ballet,” with the romantic nineteenth century as its frame; Wheeldon gives us much the same sense of exploration informed by tradition, only now the tradition is modernism itself (don’t worry, the romance is still there, too, subsumed in all the angular body sculpture). The music (largely drawn from Ligeti’s Musica Ricercata, and played with controlled maturity by Freda Locker) is ascetic, in fact almost cruelly reduced, but still defiantly lyric, a good match for an extension of Mr. B’s method. And if Wheeldon’s tropes are indebted to the master’s - Balanchine’s structure is there, along with his leotards – the piece still exudes a contorted, transformative power that strikes me as new, and Wheeldon’s own.

The dancers did well by the steps, even if at times the coordinated arcs (Wheeldon has a way of slipping dancers through each other, in echo of Ligeti’s taut melodic lines) weren’t yet quite as smooth as they should be. There was also a joyful duet for two men, exuberantly essayed by Roman Rykine and John Lam (the often-overlooked Mr. Lam was also notable in Brake the Eyes), and a somberly absorbing pas for Karine Seneca and Carlos Molina, set to the chilling little tune that Kubrick chose as his “fear theme” in Eyes Wide Shut.

After all this virtuosity, how did the reprise of Val Caniparoli’s Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion hold up? Well, dazzlingly, to be sure – but perhaps superficially dazzling, at least compared to what had come before. Caniparoli’s electric shifts between tango-like duets and a muscular, chaotic ensemble still enthralled, and the company, refreshed by the expert Romi Beppu and Nelson Madrigal, was certainly committed to them. But the second-movement pas, despite a subtle, attentive rendering by Lorna Feijóo and Yury Yanowsky, seemed to lack deeper resonance, and the livelier final movement didn’t quite make up for lost ground. Nevertheless, the musical performance, under Jonathan McPhee’s lively baton, was, as always, rewardingly precise, and there were fierce turns from Boyko Dossev and Joel Prouty. As the curtain came down, the house came down, too – and you left the evening, as Emily Dickinson might say, with the feeling that the top of your head had just been taken off. Few today think of ballet as intellectually challenging – but it is, and this memorable program is proof.

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