Monday, May 19, 2008
The most thrilling dance of the year
Sometimes art doesn't require precision; sometimes primal energy is enough. At least that seemed to be the case last weekend, at Boston Ballet's "Three Masterpieces" program. There were wobbles throughout the evening - along with stretches of brilliance - but the concert ended with an unbelievable bang, via Twyla Tharp's In the Upper Room (most of the finale above, danced by American Ballet Theatre). Even here, things were a little muddy in spots, and by the finish the dancers (understandably) looked close to exhaustion. But it was still thrilling; not just the most exciting dance of the year, but perhaps the most exciting artistic event of the year, period.
But let's back up a minute - after all, this program purported to be about three masterpieces. But truth be told, it was only about two, and one near-masterpiece: Anthony Tudor's Dark Elegies, while certainly a brilliant dance, didn't really hold up against Balanchine's Concerto Barocco or the Tharp. Or perhaps the apparent imbalance lay in the fact that the Tudor was entirely a different kind of dance: Tharp and Balanchine made quite the modern/postmodern pair, with intriguing parallels in their differing deployments of movement through an abstract space. But Tudor was working in a naturalistic, almost dramatic mode, and his subject matter was practically the antithesis of Balanchine's and Tharp's (who were both working through differing modes of joy). Dark Elegies, however, unfolds to Mahler's quietly harrowing Kindertotenlieder, or Songs on the Death of Children, and seeks to evoke a communal response to said tragedy. Tudor's villagers work through their grief via a ritual which breaks into tiny spikes of mourning - until at last, to Mahler's final song, they find some sort of peace. Tudor's corresponding choreography is superbly understated, and Boston Ballet made it even more understated, perhaps to the point of losing the sense of slow transition to resignation; only Yury Yanowsky broke through with a sense of the grief roiling beneath the choral movement. Still, the piece was worthwhile purely for the orchestra's playing, and Philip Lima's singing - a performance the BSO could hardly have hoped to beat.
A precise tableau from Concerto Barocco - photo by Rosalie O'Connor.
Under conductor Jonathan McPhee, the orchestra was in equally fine form for Bach's Concerto Barocco (with equally fine violin soloists Michael Rosenbloom and Lisa Crockett). Barocco is famously the dance in which Balanchine "became Balanchine," dispensing with the last remants of a romantic storyline to pursue an idealized neoclassicism. With Concerto Barocco, as Mr. B. put it himself, "you see the music and hear the dance," only the opening of the Boston Ballet was a little fuzzy and muffled: the corps, which proved so dazzling last week in Swan Lake, wobbled slightly but repeatedly in the opening unfolding of the piece (they gained a better footing as it progressed). Luckily soloists Lia Cirio and Melanie Atkins were appropriately precise; Atkins once again somehow exuded a theatrical presence perfectly matched to Balanchine, but this time she was outdanced by Cirio, who came through with an astoundingly clean and buoyant performance. As usual, Mr. B.'s danseur played a distant second to his women, but Pavel Gurevitch nevertheless partnered Cirio with sensitivity and panache.
Rie Ichikawa and Misa Kuranaga in In the Upper Room. Photo by Rosalie O'Connor.
The men were on better footing in Upper Room, where both genders mix in roughly equal numbers, some in ballet shoes, others in sneakers ("the stompers," Tharp called them, although this typically Tharpian dichotomy doesn't really come to much). The 1986 work is a poignant reminder that before Tharp stooped to choreographing Billy Joel musicals, she was something of a genius - and one whose influence is still clear in choreographers like Forsythe and the Ballet's own Jorma Elo. In the Upper Room takes its title from the New Testament verse in which the apostles retire to pray "in the upper room" after the ascension of Christ. And I don't think Tharp means to be ironic (indeed, she rather pointedly deploys thirteen dancers); instead, my guess is that the physical blow-out conjured here is meant as a kind of ecstatic prayer, a levitation to match the Ascension. Tharp's apostles, of course, are all Americans - they're carhops, station attendants, athletes, and cheerleaders, all dressed in red, white and blue - and Philip Glass's amplified (actually over-amplified) score gets at something nativist, too: the pumping optimism of his relentless, major-key arpeggios somehow evokes the happy, confident mindlessness of our collective mindset. And if at bottom there's nothing behind these joyous invocations but sheer physical prowess, then perhaps, at least for the length of the piece, that can feel like transcendence. By the finale, as the cheerleaders and gymnasts and ballerinas spun and jumped and raced forwards and backwards through Tharp's loose-limbed rhythms and ever-more-complex variations, the piece had become completely ravishing. True, the performance wasn't flawless, but it was enough to make the crowd leap to its feet, cheering. They knew, as I did, that In the Upper Room is the kind of dance you never forget.