Saturday, April 2, 2011

Elo in retrospect

Jeffrey Cirio and Larissa Ponomarenko in "The Elo Experience." Photos - Gene Schiavone.

I'm late with thoughts on Boston Ballet's "Elo Experience" (it closes this weekend), and Hub Review fans know that means only one thing: I haven't made up my mind about it. But it's time to give my mixed feelings their best shot.

Those unfamiliar with the high cultural scene might be surprised to learn that for the last few years our city has been home base for one of the hottest choreographers in the country: Jorma Elo, childhood friend (and fellow Finn) of Boston Ballet's artistic director, Mikko Nissinen. Elo was named the company's resident choreographer some six years ago, and since then has created a new work for the Ballet just about every year (including Plan to B, Brake the Eyes, and In on Blue, perhaps my favorite of his ballets, as well as re-interpretations of Carmen and Rite of Spring).  In between his Boston gigs, Elo has also set dances on many (if not most) of the A-list companies in America and Europe; his name and work are now everywhere.

So an Elo retrospective is certainly in order.  Rather than give us another in-depth look at his ballets, however, Boston Ballet has settled on a pastiche of the choreographer's greatest hits (coupled with a loose set of connecting dances), and pitched this as a world premiere, "The Elo Experience," which - as pastiches often do - had both its pluses and minuses artistically.

On the plus side, it allowed Elo to declare himself quite plainly, which is something I'm sure artists often long to do.  From the beginning, it seemed pretty clear to me that this choreographer was obsessed with forging some kind of relationship between ballet and pop culture, and in the connective "break" dances he has concocted here for Lisa Ponomarenko and Jeffrey Cirio, he comes right out and says the same thing himself.   At the very top of the show, in fact, he proffers an improbable romance between a club-boy and a ballerina: young Cirio, in sparkling club gear, enters as a kind of surrogate for the choreographer, pushing along a house-sized trailer that looks like an idealized computer equipped with a giant screen; out of it pops Ponomarenko, in a dark, slightly damaged tutu.  Something like a partnership immediately commences between them.

Every one of those details counts, I think, in what Elo is trying to say.  That giant computer screen operates in the same way the moon and the drooping trees do in Swan Lake: it's shorthand for the emotional setting, the cultural surround, of the work.  Only the pathetic fallacy is passé, Elo tells us; ballet now has to operate against the cool, minimalist chic of the i-Pad.   Of course his boy-meets-girl scenario assures us that in at least one way, he isn't really changing anything about ballet.  And as usual, his central duo are from different worlds - only not the peasants and the gentry, or the supernatural and the sublime, as we might expect in Giselle.  No, this time one is from the world of ballet itself: damaged, experienced but uncertain, yet hanging onto some kind of glamour and romantic ideal - while the other is from club-land, innocently into sensory overload and the multi-tasking of pleasure, not to mention Ecstasy, Ritalin, and who knows what else.

The crash between these two sensibilities is Elo's basic statement.  And if that sounds a bit simplistic, rest assured that Elo is a font of dazzling variations on this central trope, which has more resonance than you might at first expect.  The choreographer rarely concentrates on the climactic pas de deux, for instance, because today's lovers don't pledge their troth, they hook up instead; so in Elo we're always watching a kind of communal sex roundelay that never really resolves into individual statements.   These people aren't interested in achieving an apotheosis; instead, they're dedicated to optimizing their experiences.  Indeed, when something like a pas de deux coalesces, there's rarely a plausible love connection in it - the dancers often don't even touch, in fact, but instead carve out complementary musical spaces around each other before exiting in some sort of dazzling lift.  And when a girl leaps into her partner's arms in Elo, we understand the jump exists as a thrill in and of itself rather than as the culmination of an emotional commitment.

Dancers Lia Cirio and James Whiteside. 
If this sounds a bit cold, well - it is (but then so are your kids); at any rate, it seems to reflect the way we live now.  At least Elo is free of the drained sense of sado-masochism that often pervades the work of William Forsythe (with whom he is often compared); this choreographer clearly just wants to have fun.  And he's not free of nostalgia for the way things used to be; in In on Blue, for instance, he heaves a palpable sigh for the loss of romantic connection (it's set largely to Bernard Herrmann's mournful score for Vertigo, btw).  At any rate, if Elo's oeuvre is usually served slightly chilled, it's nevertheless almost always exciting, and there were plenty of thrills in "The Elo Experience" (even its name kind of conjures a thrill ride, doesn't it).

Although I have to say I always wanted a bit more of the individual rides, and less of the rather repetitive connective pit-stops.  Even the already-brief Plan to B (which first put Elo on the map, I'd say) seemed slightly abbreviated here, although it's just as dazzling as ever, and probably is the best argument for the real grace that undergirds his occasional freneticism.  There were similar chunks of gorgeous, if hyperactive, music visualization in the excerpts from dances choreographed elsewhere, like Double Evil (set to a blaring, but lyrical, Philip Glass concerto for timpani), and Lost on SLOW; but often in these dances you felt you'd only just gotten a handle on things (as in the mysterious Lost by Last, set to more Hermann, this time from Psycho!) when Elo cut back to his frame story (or the ongoing parody of its accompaniment, Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto, in which a huge corps hurtled pointlessly through a quick variation or two before dashing offstage).

I should also add, I'm afraid, that the corps in these sequences was hardly a model of precision; things often got a bit sloppy, in fact.  The excerpts themselves fared far better - here the company consistently bowled you over, though always in flashes.  Still, Sabi Varga,  John Lam, Kathleen Breen Combes, Joseph Gatti, Lia Cirio, James Whiteside and Lasha Khozashvili all had their moments of brilliance under Elo's choreographic strobe, and for the first time I thought newcomers Paulo Arrais and Rachel Cossar made positive impressions.  And Cirio and Ponomarenko consistently charmed in their bickering "break" dances.

But the lack of star turns only points up another basic problem with an evening's worth of Elo: the very cultural conditions he illuminates - our short attention spans and craving for distraction - tend to prevent his works from developing or building.  Long or short, most of his dances achieve the same effect, over and over.  Not that he's unaware of this issue himself; in the ongoing dialogue of non sequiturs in his frame story,  the ballerina kept sighing to her club consort that "We always end up in the same place."  And indeed they did.  Perhaps now that he's had his retrospective, Elo may decide to set out for somewhere new.


  1. Hi Tom,
    I'm afraid I just found all the connecting dances set to Tchaikovsky to be annoying. And while I can see where you are getting at in term's of Elo's themes, I felt like the retrospective actually led me to the conclusion that "the emperor has no clothes" -- seeing all these works together made me realize what a limited vocabulary he beings to his work (or, perhaps, chooses to bring to his work). On the other hand, the dancing in the individual pieces was indeed terrific. "Plan To B" still stands out, and I was initially intrigued by the Bernard Hermann piece (and its creepy, claustrophobic feel), but it didn't seem to go anywhere after the initial pas de deux.

  2. Hmmm. Well, I have some doubts as Elo myself, as I think I expressed in the review. But I'd hardly say "the emperor has no clothes." And while I know what you mean about his movement vocabulary, the real problem is that he has a limited number of moods, not moves. My general point is that his seeming limits DO map to the cultural surround he's trying to create ballet for, which posits an interesting cultural problem. And just btw, as I hope I made clear, some of the distillations in "Elo Experience" didn't do justice to the original works (I think "Brake the Eyes" and "In on Blue" are both stronger at full-length).

  3. It may be interesting to hear how his Pulcinella Alive goes down in Philadelphia.