Monday, October 25, 2010

Big news at the Ballet

"The Kingdom of Shades" sequence from "Night of Stars." Boston Ballet photos by Gene Schiavone.
This weekend brought Boston Ballet's annual "Night of Stars" gala, which is always a pleasure - this time around, though, there were some real surprises in store; the company has grown its ranks (including Boston Ballet II) by 19 dancers, and "Night" marked our first peek at a few of them.

The good news (and actually the big news of the evening) is that the Ballet seems to have chosen well - and all but closed the last gap (among its men) in its "world class" status.  New danseurs Lasha Khozashvili and Joseph Gatti both made stunning debuts, Khozashvili in a brilliant new work by Helen Pickett, and Gatti in a virtuosic spin through the leaps of Le Corsaire that all but drove the crowd wild.  These talented guys will clearly refresh (and perhaps bring a competitive edge to) a bench that has sometimes been a bit uneven.  Of the new women, only Adiarys Almeida was featured prominently (below left with Gatti, in a jump that gives you some idea of the spring in his step), and while she didn't throw off many sparks of personality, she nevertheless sparkled technically.

Alas, the bad news was that the corps de ballet, which has improved markedly over the past few seasons, wobbled noticeably in its big number, "The Kingdom of Shades" from the upcoming La Bayadère. The dance - much of which takes place on a long, sloping ramp (at top) - is a killer series of slow (very slow) arabesques and rotations; it's one of the most difficult, and utterly exposed, sequences for the corps in the repertory - hardcore corps, if you will. And the girls just weren't ready - they didn't like that ramp, not one bit, but even once they were on solid ground things never quite cohered. Not that this is easy! But "The Kingdom of Shades" may have been one gamble the Ballet shouldn't have made.

Yet as if to compensate, the Ballet's established stars shone brightly.  Larissa Ponomarenko returned to the stage after a hiatus last year, opposite Khozashvili in the intense "Layli O Majnun" (at right) from Pickett, and demonstrated yet again that she's not only one of the Ballet's greatest dancers but its greatest actress, too.  The shock was that Khozashvili demonstrated a similar psychological depth; these two Russians are naturals together, and the Pickett should be stunning when it "officially" premieres next spring.

Elsewhere, the oft-imperious Kathleen Breen Combes seemed to open up a whole new wing of her stage presence as a glowing Terpsichore in an excerpt from Balanchine's Apollo (against Pavel Gurevich), and Whitney Jensen was eloquently light and free in Mr. B's "Tarantella."  The great Balanchine kept on coming, too - James Whiteside and Misa Kuranaga were exquisite in his "Theme and Variations" from Jewels, and the company danced elegantly in its dazzling finale (as they had earlier in Jorma Elo's "Plan to B," a crazy quilt of swiveling moves that basically sets Attention Deficit Disorder to dancing).   There was even a striking premiere, choreographed by dancer Yury Yanowsky, to a new piece of music by Berklee grad Lucas Vidal.  The up-and-coming Mr. Vidal came up with an appealing score that sounded a bit like Philip Glass with romantic film music threaded through it; it was derivative, but hinted at the development of its own original musical niche.  Mr. Yanowsky doesn't quite have his own choreographic voice, yet, either, but his dance had an aggressive, off-hand athleticism that was exciting and highly watchable, and drew committed, fearless performances from Rie Ichikawa, John Lam, and Jaime Diaz.

The evening's guest stars were Wendy Whelan, a long-time light at NYCB, and Damian Smith, of San Francisco Ballet, performing Whelan's signature piece, Christopher Wheeldon's heartbreaking ode to dysfunctional romance, "After the Rain."  I've seen Whelan do this before, and as always, she was peerless, and Smith provided perfect support.  Small-scaled rather than grand in its melancholy, it offered a haunting note of contrast to what was generally a night of high-stepping triumph.

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