Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Fire dance

The female tribe of Rite of Spring. Photo by Rosalie O'Connor.

It's been a stunning season for Boston Ballet, with a growing sense that the company has pulled off what amounts to a stylistic trifecta. First came the flashy postmodernism of Black and White, then the sparkling modernism of Balanchine's Jewels, and then the sumptuous nineteenth-century Sleeping Beauty. And for last weekend's season finale, the company planned yet another artistic coup: a recreation of the signature pieces of Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, followed by a leap-frog beyond post-modernism and into whatever comes next with a brand-new Rite of Spring.

Five years ago, this kind of season was only a dream; now, it's a reality. Nearly. But so nearly that there's cause for celebration anyway. For the first half of the Ballets Russes program was generally smashing - only one piece, "Le Spectre de la Rose," wobbled on its stem - and if the new finale, from Jorma Elo, was slightly frustrating in its narrative control, it was still dazzling in its showmanship and formal attack. And the dancers (some of whom had already performed punishing roles earlier in the evening) picked up this choreographer's gauntlet of intense micro-movement and ran with it all the way to a standing ovation.

But first, the living-diorama first half, devoted to the seminal works of the Ballets Russes, which up-ended ballet and jump-started modernism a century ago with pieces like Balanchine's Prodigal Son and Nijinsky's Afternoon of a Faun. Here the Ballet opted for as close to a literal transcription of the original performances as they could manage - we got Bakst's original costumes and backdrop for Faun, for instance - and the results were generally splendid.

Indeed, it was absolutely wonderful to see Balanchine's inventive Prodigal Son again (the company did it maybe six years ago), because this strange but potent ballet never seems to grow old, and it once again held the audience spellbound. I saw both Yury Yanowsky and Jared Redick (who is retiring to run one of the Ballet's academies) essay the title role. Yanowsky, who also played the part six years ago, was the eager libertine, Redick more the naïve idealist. Both delivered complex portrayals, however - indeed, I'm not sure either have ever danced better; although perhaps Yanowsky had the edge in the pathos of the Son's desperate return, literally on bended knee (his slow crawl up his father's totem-like torso was unforgettable).

There was the lingering sense that the piece wasn't quite as powerful as it could have been, however, due to the casting of the Siren who brings the Son down (and then shakes him down). Melanie Atkins (who is also retiring from the company) is a wonderful Balanchine dancer in either his classic or music-hall modes, but the rigid savagery of Prodigal Son isn't really in her comfort zone, and she doesn't have too much sexual chemistry with Yanowsky (both above left). Hers was an intriguingly self-aware Siren, but not a galvanic one. Kathleen Breen Combes, who danced against Redick, had more of the right kind of calculating force, and was coldly compelling, though her pairing with Redick again didn't send off precisely the right sparks - Combes against Yanowsky would have been the ideal, but I'm not sure they ever got to dance with each other.

Next up was "Le Spectre de la Rose," Fokine's distillation of romantic yearning: a young girl falls asleep while contemplating the eponymous blossom, which then takes masculine form in her dreams. Unusually for the Ballets Russes, it's a charmer, and it charmed here, although Nelson Madrigal, who certainly has the sensual presence to play the ghostly posy, was a little blurry technically on opening night (he had been stronger when I saw him rehearsal). Madrigal sharpened up, however, once he was partnering the exquisite Cornejo, who was pretty much perfect for (if under-utilized in) this classic role.

Then came another tour de force - Nijinsky's ode to the sexual animal, Afternoon of a Faun, in which Roman Rykine took the role made famous by the great danseur, with Lorna Feijóo as his nervous temptress (both above, photo by Eric Antoniou). The "diorama" aspect of the evening came into clearest focus here, because the piece itself is designed as a kind of pagan frieze, with classical figures marching on and off in languid profile, and the Faun (tail, horns, and all) descending from a block of phallic rock. The effect was of living, breathing panels sliding back and forth before us, and the stiff stylization resonated nicely with the Faun's darting and, well, fawn-like movements. The self-serious scandalousness of the piece could collapse into camp with a single wrong move, but Rykine was mesmerizingly intense in his preternatural alertness (even his slow sniff of his prey came off as somehow sexy), and Lorna Feijóo was so committed to her own frightened temptation that the whole decadent daydream came off beautifully.

At last came the greatest challenge of the evening: to top, or at least equal, these classics with a new Rite of Spring - and maybe even spark a kind of riot in the theatre as the original did (reconstructed by the Joffrey Ballet, below).

I know, I know - hard to believe the odd hopping seen above could have kicked off such a fuss, let alone the modern era. I guess you had to be there (and it's no wonder the Ballet commissioned a new version!). At any rate, Jorma Elo brought to the famously savage score something far more sophisticated than Nijinsky did, and hardly so easily interpreted. He traded the primitive costumes for shiny red slacks and what looked like bathing suits, and cast the dance against fire, not earth (tiny jets of actual flame flickered continuously throughout). The resulting imagery seemed to flout the intents of the original in a key respect - it had left Flora and Pomona and the gods of the harvest far behind, and was playing itself out in some glamorous virtual space; yet it was still lit by the old fires, with a kind of "community" operating within its dark parameters. There were also still tribes in evidence - two of them in fact, men and women, with a subtle power struggle going on between them - but no sages or elders were demanding a sacrifice, as in the original; the community itself simply seemed to be hoping for one, perhaps even desperate for one to give it some sense of meaning, some connection to the old narratives. Thus despite the transfiguration of the work's "program," its goal seemed roughly the same.

Only it was in the communication of that program that Elo came up short - as he often does. Because intriguingly, rather than simplify Nijinsky's original script, the choreographer seemed to have complicated it. The sacrificial lamb, or "Chosen One" of the original (Larissa Ponomarenko) had a girlfriend this time around (Melissa Hough) - as well as what seemed to be a true love (Sabi Varga). And her girlfriend seemed to have a boyfriend, too. And while there were no sages or patriarchs running the show, there seemed to be a kind of tempter (Yury Yanowsky), who often threatened, abused, or perhaps even drugged Ponomarenko, with the strangely distant assistance of his own gal pal (Lorna Feijóo).

Got all that? Well, I think the audience had a little trouble with it (certainly the Globe and Herald critics did!), as these relationships and intrigues were layered into a constantly morphing set of variations, as well as sudden, swooping choral movements (above, photo by Eric Antoniou). And Elo did us few favors with the choreographic syntax he had devised minute-by-minute. By now, local audiences are used to his vocabulary: the "breaks" and swivels and pops, the windmilling arms, the ingenious lifts and leaps and combinations that seem to go on forever. His choreographic language is dazzling on its own terms; the trouble is that it's too self-involved formally. It hints at symbol and pantomime, but always seems to draw back into some level of "difficulty," some vague inscrutability, some slight post-modern distance from both obvious meaning and its own musical accompaniment (Elo likes to run on just past the end of the score, and often self-consciously dodges its climaxes). Like his Rite of Spring, Elo seems to have lifted off from the choreographic earth, and is sending semaphore back from some private cybernetic sphere.

But Balanchine's Prodigal Son, seen earlier in the evening, made a punishing contrast to all this. Balanchine's choreography was endlessly inventive, and incorporated everything from slapstick to gymnastics, and yet its meaning was always transparently clear; perhaps even more strikingly, Balanchine was able to thread symbol, narrative and formal experimentation together in a stunning synthesis. But to Elo, this easy flexibility between multiple valences and modes seems impossible; because his busy formal concerns are so determinant, he has to drop them entirely for a few moments to give us a little bit of drama or clear-cut symbol. Thus Rite of Spring sometimes felt like a road-map spiked by sudden sign-posts stuck in swaths of impenetrable territory.

Okay, so Elo isn't Balanchine; who is? And if the design of Rite of Spring wasn't always interpretible, it was nevertheless often beautiful: Elo has designed a mysteriously balanced trio for Feijóo, Yanowsky and Ponomarenko, for example, that's as good as anything he's done, and the choral work was consistently breath-taking. Plus he has hidden a surprise in his finale, which I suppose it's ruining no secrets at this point to give away - and which teases us with a new perspective on everything that has come before. In the last moments, the "Chosen One" fights back, and kills her tempter; he becomes the sacrifice. Or was he always intended to be the sacrifice? Has the entire dance been one of Ponomarenko's hesitation before her big assignment? Or has it been a bit more like Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery," in which hard-to-interpret intrigues have slowly determined who, exactly, is going to get the axe? It would have been wonderful to have been able to look back over the choreography and discover hints and clues to support the dance's final twist. And maybe someday, Jorma Elo will be able to pull off that kind of programmatic structure. But not yet.

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