Friday, February 13, 2009

Dirty dancing at the Ballet

A moment from "Falling Angels."

A triumph; a must-see; a dance that brings the audience to its feet, cheering. You could, I suppose, say that about, oh, Dirty Dancing, if you wanted to. But if you added the phrase, "And then sets the crowd to thinking," then you could only be talking about the far-sexier, far-dirtier "Black and White," the brilliant suite of dances by Jiří Kylián that Boston Ballet premiered at the Wang Center last night (and which only runs through Sunday; half-price offer here.) It was promoted as one of the major cultural events of the year, and it turned out to be just that.

All this even though the performance stumbled at its very first step (when I think the wrong piece of music, incredibly, began to play!). And the first offering, "No More Play," is a little diffuse and restrained to serve as an effective overture. But the program started to rock with "Petite Mort" (that's French slang for "orgasm," btw, all you Dirty Dancing fans) with its corsets and rapiers and dazzling duets, and from then on it never lapsed in energy or interest; and in retrospect, we could see how the moves and hesitations of "No More Play" served as an introduction to the language which Kylián later deployed through a dizzying range of settings and moods.

The five pieces (the remaining three are "Sarabande," "Falling Angels," and "Sechs Tänze") were actually choreographed over a span of five years, then arranged into a suite in the early 90's, and so serve as a guided tour through Kylián's thoughts and concerns during the period (roughly his middle years as Artistic Director of the influential Nederlands Dans Theater). And it's startling to ponder just how much cultural material he's layered into these moves, all while producing dances which are reliably gripping minute-to-minute. Central to the suite is an overarching meditation on the relation of classicism to modernism, and modernism to postmodernism (and then postmodernism to camp!) - an extreme thematic and historical latitude that would be all but impossible in theatre or the visual arts. But Kylián keeps his format so flexible that there's also room for intriguing detours into sexuality and its construction, role-playing and violence, and dance as a vehicle for both the individual and the group - as well as a determined exploration of the edge between narrative and "pure" movement (and even between dance and theatre). If that sounds like a lecture, fear not; the good news is that Kylián has the popular touch of a born entertainer, and "Black and White" is always sleek and even a little slick.

Binding the whole evening together is a set of dark ball gowns, rigid as rocks, and painted a deep black. Sometimes they hang overhead like funeral bells, or whiz by like bumper cars, or merely make ghostly, totemic appearances, but they're omnipresent, and seem to represent the cornerstone of the suite - the feminine with a capital F, rigid, ravishing, and imprisoning. In the suite's most iconic moment, from "Sarabande," they even seem to "birth" half-naked men from their skirts, who squirm and squeal - and sometimes scream - and struggle to breathe free. But do these men speak for the hidden male animus within the society "woman," or are they danseurs raging against the primacy of the ballerina - or are they simply modern men struggling with their "feminine sides" (the central solo, sensuously rendered here by Yury Yanowsky, suggests as much)? Kylián's genius is that he never insists on a single interpretation. Thus in "Petite Mort," when the men lay down their rapiers (with which they've made their slashing entrance) and greet their newly-arrived dancing partners, it's unclear whether they're actually laying their weapons aside, or merely picking up new ones. And when the tribe of women pounding through the many variations of "Falling Angels" change their formation, we can make out that dark ball gown standing silently behind them - hinting, perhaps, that the "new" woman isn't quite so new after all.

With or without all the structuralist symbology, however, Kylián always holds us with his formal command of the many dance modes he deploys. He opens with a stretch of bleak, questioning modernism ("No More Play"), then slips into an edgy, postmodern parody of classical duets ("Petite Mort," left) that slowly reveals its own rapturous, private beauty. The following "Sarabande" is more gestural theatre and striking lighting design than dance (I wish the final, mournful solo had been fuller), but is always fascinating, while "Falling Angels" - a percussive dance for eight women to Steve Reich's "Drumming, Part I" - proves a bracingly propulsive (yet oddly calm) piece of minimalist extrapolation (and perhaps the most impressive feat of physical memorization you'll ever see). The evening wraps, as postmodernism always seems to, with camp - "Sechs Tänze," a goofy romp to Mozart (below right), in which those ball gowns have morphed into giant drag queens, and everyone seems very, very confused in their powdered wigs until clouds of soap bubbles start floating in, and provide about as ditzily lovely a closing image as I can remember. If you're a long Ballet-watcher like me, you know that there's a whole circus troupe of hilarious clowns lurking within these dancers, and it's great fun to see them have a chance to cut loose.

So Kylián sends us out into the night in high spirits - and with perhaps more thematic material on our minds than it's possible to unpack. It's rare that a dance can be so smoothly accessible, and yet so rich (although by now, nearly twenty years after its first appearance, "Black and White" feels a bit more like recap than revelation). Of course it wouldn't seem so entertaining sans the skills of the Boston Ballet. As always, the company - or at least the men - had a little trouble with the synchronous precision that Kylián's choral movements demand (the eight women of "Falling Angels," perhaps due to past service in the corps, were by comparison a finely-tuned machine). But there were brilliant individual moments from almost everyone. Boyko Dossev and Larissa Ponomarenko brought exquisite grace to their swooping duet in "Petite Mort," as did Megan Gray and Lorin Mathis, while Yury Yanowsky and Sabi Varga found a sinuous tension in "Sarabande." The eight women of "Falling Angels" - Kathleen Breen Combes, Erica Cornejo, Melissa Hough, Rie Ichikawa, Heather Myers, Larissa Ponomarenko, Luciana Voltolini and Heather Waymack - were disciplined perfection, and there was new fire in familiar faces like Carlos Molina and Roman Rykine. Meanwhile Lorna Feijóo, Pavel Gurevich, Altankhuyag Dugaraa and Jared Redick were all articulately witty in the final shenanigans, and James Whiteside made a very impressive 10-foot-tall belle of the ball. Something tells me "Black and White" will probably loom as large over the local dance season - although isn't it time, particularly in a program titled "Black and White," with the whole Euro-African axis operating as its subtext, that we began to see some black boys and girls in the Boston Ballet? I mean, what's up with that?

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