Friday, May 20, 2011

Photos by Gene Schiavone.
Balanchine/Robbins comes at the end of a long and rewarding season for Boston Ballet (it seems we've only just seen dazzling productions of A Midsummer Night's Dream and Bella Figura); yet it's surprisingly big and bold and beautiful; in its ambition and scope it might have been the centerpiece of an earlier season.  Now it's simply another week's work for this astounding company; frankly, Boston balletomanes have never had it so good.

It also makes amends for a gap in the company's programming: we've seen a lot of Balanchine, but not much of Jerome Robbins in recent years, even though he (born Rabinowitz) and  Mr. B (born Balanchivadze) worked together on a show or two, and were orbiting stars at New York City Ballet in the 70's. Arguably this pair had a greater impact on American dance than any other two men in the twentieth century.

But if you're hoping for some sort of thesis about their artistic relationship from Balanchine/Robbins, you'll be disappointed.  Indeed, the program chooses opposing modes of each artist's oeuvre, so we feel their contrast far more than any correspondence between them; from Balanchine, we get two sprawling works named simply for their sources, Divertimento No. 15 (Mozart) and Symphony in Three Movements (Stravinsky); from Robbins, we get the intimately slim Afternoon of a Faun, and the larger, but still somehow hushed Antique Epigraphs (both based on Debussy).

What was surprising was that the slightest of these, Faun, should have proved the high point of the evening.  In this haunting little cameo Robbins manages to compress both a critique and a hymn to the allure of ballet - while simultaneously offering a sly comment on its legendary source, Nijinsky's 1912 original. Nijinsky shocked audiences back then with a sensual dream both exotic and animal - which he froze into a kind of slowly-unfolding frieze. Balanchine's most brilliant gambit is to translate that frieze into the flat plane of a mirror, and allow the dreamy sex to play out on (and "through") its surface. In his version of that languid afternoon, the Faun is a male dancer (Sabi Varga) prone in a rehearsal studio; waking from (or falling into?) a daydream, he is joined by a blonde sylph (Whitney Jensen) seemingly there to warm up, but really there to contemplate herself in the unseen mirror that forms the "fourth wall" of the stage (at left). They share an exquisite series of lifts, which generate a heady romantic atmosphere, yet their eyes are almost always on that mirror (that is, on us) rather than each other; indeed, an impulsive kiss from Varga shatters the reverie, and ends the piece. That scenario may sound paper-thin, but the work feels surprisingly deep in its calm depiction of the narcissim that not only fuels ballet, but maybe love itself. And Varga and Jensen played Robbins' subtle, concentrated moves to literal perfection. Jensen in particular gave a surprisingly moving dramatic performance - she has always been a coolly superb technician; here she showed signs of the acting talent that truly great dancers have as well.

Next to this, Robbins' Antique Epigraphs looks a little under-powered, although it was danced lucidly by the women of the Ballet.  Like Faun, Epigraphs is a slow-motion daydream in classical Greek (this time sans update; the women wear sered, ancient drapes in earth tones); it was inspired by Debussy's piano settings for a group of phony translations of Sappho that were a small sensation in the nineteenth century.  But alas, not much Sapphic energy survives in Robbins' version; statuary seems to have instead been his inspiration (but then he was always one to half-suggest, then suppress, evidence of homosexuality, wasn't he). Thus the piece is lovely, but somehow obscure in its intents. Which is almost too bad, because it's rare in the ballet tradition to see a large work devoted entirely to women, in which they dance for, and with, each other, rather than waiting for some guy to show up (as almost always happens in Balanchine). Instead Ancient Epigraphs plays like a funerary rite, with the women rarely touching, and certainly never having any fun. Of course perhaps that atmosphere of stricken silence is Robbins' point - the women do link arms in solidarity at the end (at top), as if guarding the ancient mystery of their oppression.  If only said mystery were a little more dramatic! Still, the eight women of the Ballet danced with transparent serenity, and there were luminous moments from Lia Cirio, Luciana Voltolini, Kathleen Breen Combes, and particularly Erica Cornejo.

I've saved the Balanchine for last, largely because Robbins was the rarity on the program - but his smaller-scaled dances were actually almost overwhelmed by the titanic works by Mr. B. that framed them.  First came Divertimento No. 15, set to Mozart's Divertimento in B-flat, K.287. The title tells you this is pure music visualization, and it is - there seems to be no "plot" - although as is often the case with Mozart, there's a whiff of innocent promiscuity in the air as variation follows variation after variation, all in gold and robin's-egg blue. But even if nothing "develops," everything is pitched at such a high level, and the duets and trios and quartets are extrapolated so effortlessly, that somehow you sense Mr. B has matched Mozart at his own game - the dance is almost carelessly simple and free, yet at the same time gorgeously constructed and brilliantly executed.

Down in the pit I'm afraid the playing was a little rough here and there, but up on stage the dancers were in superb control. Lorna Feijóo was the stand-out, and it was good to see her really own something again, as she did in solos where her footwork was so quick and crisp it seemed to be almost flickering. And James Whiteside once again displayed the elegant attack which has made him the company's lead choice for Balanchine - and he seems to be able to sensitively adjust his partnering to just about any lady he's dancing with - although he was often given a run for his money by the more sensual Jaime Diaz, and the always-wired John Lam. Meanwhile younger company members Dalay Parrondo and Tiffany Hedman likewise made their own sparkling impressions.

By the time we got to Symphony in Three Movements, we half-expected some of the dancers to just poop out; a few of them seemed to have been dancing all night. The bouncing, booming work nevertheless came off, even though it's a bit cramped on the Opera House stage.  Still, it's a curiosity - Stravinsky's pounding score, from 1946, echoes with the ruthless song of war, but Balanchine has choreographed to it a kind of paean to all-American energy.  Thus it opens with a bevy of bathing beauties straight out of the Miss America pageant (at top), and it's full of prancing mobs of teen-agers, their ponytails bobbing, who march about in "armies" that crash into, and through, each other as if in some mad Busby Berkeley version of the Nuremberg rallies.  (That is when they're not burning off excess energy with bursts of calisthenics - see video above).  There are a few sweet moments, but mostly the tone is ironic - and sometimes downright chilly (as in a strangely alienated pas de deux between Lia Cirio and James Whiteside). 

The work ultimately feels like a kind of flipside to John Cage's triumphalist Credo in US, in which American pop cacophony happily drowns out European decadence.  Perhaps for a transplanted Russian like Balanchine, there was a certain rue to be found even in that triumph. Or perhaps he could see beneath the blank cheer of American confidence a different kind of menace.  You can decide yourself this weekend; this amazingly variegated program plays through Sunday at the Opera House.


  1. Thank you for your beautiful tribute to Larissa Ponomarenko... while I was only privileged to see her dance for seven seasons, they were so beautiful that I am grateful to have seen so many performances. I think my favorite performance, as you noted, was one that showcased her acting talent, which was in the Lady of the Camellias, where she managed the most evocative deathbed scene ever.

    (I will also never forget the evening I went to a performance, and she was injured, sitting in the audience with her leg in a brace, a mere three rows away from me. At intermission, I ever so daringly approached her and told her what a fan of hers I was, and she was so gracious, and smiled, and thanked me so sincerely. )

  2. She was certainly one of the greatest artists in the city, and as you point out - such a class act. I'll really miss her.