Thursday, May 13, 2010

Lia Cirio and Pavel Gurevich in Ultimate Balanchine. Photos by Gene Schiavone.

You still have time to catch Ultimate Balanchine, an evening which demonstrates what even the New York Times has grudgingly had to admit: Boston Ballet now has the chops to float freely between the romantic, modern and post-modern repertory. Yes, Bostonians - New York says it's ok to go the Ballet! So what are you waiting for?

Well, if what you've been waiting for is artistic challenge, you'd better hustle: Ultimate takes its last bow this weekend, and its opening pieces, "The Four Temperaments" and "Apollo," are as astringent and stripped-down as any modern classicist could want. But hang on till the end, you traditionalists - the concert wraps with "Theme and Variations," one of those jewels in which Mr. B. lovingly cut the romantic tradition to a dazzling new precision, and you can feast your eyes on all the tutus and tiaras you could possibly want.

To be honest, I did have one caveat about the program: in the first moments of "Four Temperaments," the Ballet didn't seem to be putting its best foot forward. The work represents Balanchine at his coldest - and its structure may be his most rigorous, and that's saying something; plus its movement (set to Paul Hindemith's commissioned score, which is a small classic in its own right) is unusually aggressive. With its lunges and splayed legs and thrusting pelvises, you feel as if Mr. B. is turning angrily on the vocabulary of ballet itself. Which isn't to say the piece doesn't coalesce, like all his great works, from choreographic fragments into concluding grand themes; it does. But some of the younger members of the company - who took the opening duets - didn't seem to know how to express the work's atmosphere of alienation; they weren't able to express intent without emotion, so they seemed a bit blank.

Still, Megan Gray and Paul Craig threw off some sparks, and once the principals moved in for the major variations (named for the medieval "Four Temperaments": Melancholic, Sanguinic, Phlegmatic and Choleric), the piece righted itself. It was great to see dancer John Lam back, and back in his usual sinuous form, as "Melancholic," but the surprise was how well everyone danced - Eric Cornejo and Nelson Madrigal, not dancers one associates with cool modernism, cleanly essayed "Sanguinic," Kathleen Breen Combes (returning to the stage after a recent injury) tore through "Choleric," and even the somewhat erratic Carlos Molina impressed with a loose, gangly grace in "Phlegmatic."

The opening frieze of "Apollo."

The second work on the program (although in terms of Mr. B.'s development, its earliest) was the rarely-seen "Apollo" (above) of 1928, although here presented in the reduced version Balanchine completed in 1979. Set to a score by Stravinsky, it represents the choreographer at his least layered and most narrational: the sun god summons three muses (Polyhymnia, Terpsichore, and Calliope) with whom he, well, muses, before selecting one as his consort (Terpsichore, the dancer, in case you hadn't picked up that Apollo=Mr. B.). Here the dance came off beautifully, even if its ensemble seemed slightly mismatched. Gurevich is a god, yes, but not a sunny one, and he and the bodaciously grounded Cirio didn't seem to quite connect as a couple; yet their dancing, both individually and together, was superb. As Calliope (the muse of poetry) Rie Ichikawa seemed a bit frail, but rising star Whitney Jensen made a gleamingly poised Polyhymnia (the muse of mime). Watching Jensen - who I think is only 18 or 19 - I myself mused at how unfair the gods can be. All the young women of the Ballet (including Jensen) work themselves day and night to achieve technical perfection - but Jensen simply has that little something extra that you notice (and she seems to have had it since the first time I saw her on the Ballet stage); there's a sheen of serene poise to her work that simply seems to have been bestowed by, well, maybe Apollo.

James Whiteside and Jaime Diaz soar in "Theme and Variations."

The finale, "Theme and Variations," seemed a world away from the heightened clarity of "Apollo" and "Four Temperaments," but it shared with them an underlying sense of structure and attack. The audience gasped audibly ("At last!") when the curtain parted to reveal a dazzling chandelier, swaths of gauze, and a veritable army of dancers glitteringly dressed for Tchaikovsky (whose gorgeous Suite No. 3 provided the score). But needless to say, beneath the piece's plush surface, Balanchine's talent for thematic development was just as exposed as it was in "Four Temperaments:" "Theme and Variations" builds into a kaleidoscopic formal statement by its curtain. On opening night, this development was anchored beautifully by leads Misa Kuranaga and James Whiteside, who danced together with poised sympathy, and separately with something close to perfection. The gigantic corps likewise danced with truly stunning synchronicity, the clarity of its line never admitting variation. I know many look down on ballet for its relentless pursuit of what is essentially superficial physical perfection; but when confronted by that perfection in the flesh, it's hard to deny its power - or, ironically enough, its surprising sense of depth.