Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Carmen electric

Yury Yanowsky works his magic on Lia Cirio. Photos by Eric Antoniou.

You could be forgiven for being a little confused about World Passions, the smorgasbord of different styles and periods being performed through this weekend by Boston Ballet. The evening opened with a tutus-and-toe-shoes showpiece (from the lost Paquita), then closed with the stripped-down chassis of Jorma Elo's cutting-edge Carmen (above), an interesting juxtaposition in and of itself; in between were short new works by Ballet "family" members Helen Pickett (who's been commissioned twice before) and Viktor Plotnikov (a former dancer).

The program didn't really seem to cohere, I suppose, but it did offer an intriguing portrait of where the Ballet "is" right now: what it can do (just about anything), as well as what's on its mind (which may be about to change).

First up was the gorgeous, utterly hidebound Paquita, which had absolutely nothing to say but said it ravishingly. The original ballet I believe is lost - what we got here was a long, brilliant divertissement by Pino Alosa based on additions to the original by Petipa. Alosa is the troupe's balletmaster, and Paquita turned out to be very much a balletmaster's ballet - it focused on carrying off charming combinations of technical intricacies, and the roles were spread around so that everybody in class got a chance to shine.

And shine they did. Lorna Feijóo (at right) wowed the crowd in the lead role by tossing off who-knows-how-many fouettés, and was generally a confident, calm marvel; she was passionately partnered by husband Nelson Madrigal, who, like Feijóo, is having a stronger season this year than last, even if one or two complex jumps weren't landed perfectly. Elsewhere the sheer depth of the company's ballerina bench was unmistakable (even if at times the corps seemed to move in and out of focus): Erica Cornejo, Lia Cirio, Melissa Hough and particularly Kathleen Breen Combes, who sailed through a series of exciting grands jetés, were all dazzling. The men kept up, but as usual were slightly over-shadowed; in the pas de trois, however, newcomer Jaime Diaz made an intriguingly strong impression (despite stepping in for Carlos Molina). Diaz's dancing wasn't impeccable, but he displayed that effortless charisma that any great dancer can't do without; if Diaz has the discipline to pull himself to the technical level of the Ballet's prima ballerinas, the troupe may soon have a new male star.

After Paquita's sparkling bedazzlement, the troupe leapt centuries and styles with works from Helen Pickett and Viktor Plotnikov, both of whom seemed to be working through reactions to Jiří Kylián, who broke into the Ballet's repertoire with the brilliant Black and White last spring. In her duo Tsukiyo (Japanese for "moonlit night"), Pickett had her ballerina struggle out of a very Kylián-like chrysalis (while her partner peeked through a glowing curtain, another Kylián trope); meanwhile, in Rhyme, Plotnikov quoted the lighting and general stance of the same choreographer's Falling Angels, from Black and White.

Pickett, a former dancer with William Forsythe, particularly seemed to struggle with the opposition of her mentor's style and Kylián's (not coincidentally, the two key influences on the Ballet's current identity). Set to a spare Arvo Pärt nocturne, Tsukiyo opened strong, with a sense of weird, nervous enchantment. But it soon began to dwindle as it ran out of narrative ideas, despite both its brevity and the best efforts of Lia Cirio and Sabi Varga; given the brilliance and size of Pickett's last commission, Eventide, I was hoping for more. Meanwhile Rhyme (at left), proved surprisingly haunting; set to Chopin's single sonata for piano and cello (with silent pre- and post-ludes), the piece played as a melancholic exercise in linking - or at least paralleling - the new, alienated athleticism to something like the old, romantic mode of coupling. When I first saw Plotnikov's work, some four years ago, I knew instantly he was a born choreographer; though slight, Rhyme only strengthened that impression.

After these interludes, the evening closed with a definite kick: Carmen: Illusions, a distillation of the evening-length Carmen that resident choreographer Jorma Elo presented three years ago (to a hearty round of raspberries). My feeling on hearing of this choice was, I confess, "Not again!," but with this reduced version (set to Radian Shchedrin's glittering, skittering "Carmen Suite for Strings and Percussion") Elo, who's been tinkering with the piece for a while, has finally come up with a winner. The story's narrative arc - often a problem for this hyperactive choreographer - definitely "pops" in this version, and Elo has streamlined the movement for his corps into striking, glamorously kinetic blocks. A few interactions remain busily indistinct, but others (such as the confrontation between Carmen and Don Jose, at left) couldn't be clearer, and the piece now has a doomy, propulsive force.

Opening night was made all the more galvanic by the sexual electricity of resident vamp Kathleen Breen Combes as Carmen, who ran thrillingly hot and cold with Yury Yanowsky as her tortured lover (and eventual killer), Don José. There was equally sharp work from supporting players Lia Cirio (who seemed to be in everything on opening night), Melissa Hough, and Sabi Varga. With this version, I think Elo can finally leave his Carmen to rest; the interesting question is whether the Ballet in general may be moving past it, too. One left World Passions wondering which choreographer would remain the Ballet's passion: Elo, Forsythe, or Kylián.

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