Two years ago, in its own words, Boston Ballet’s production of Jiří Kylián’s Black and White took the city by storm (it proved so popular the company reprised it last season); the production was one of those rare, thrilling moments in which a startling intellectual statement was also a roaring popular success. Now the Ballet is back with another Kylián premiere from the same fertile period (through this weekend at the Opera House), which poses an inevitable question: can the company catch lightning in a bottle twice?
And the answer is: yah, pretty much. Bella Figura (above) doesn’t pack quite the shocking wallop of Black and White, even though it covers much of the same territory (gender, violence, and identity, for those of you keeping score). But if that earlier blockbuster was a choreographic call to arms, in which men danced with rapiers while women prowled the stage like lionesses, Figura is more of a rumination, sometimes tragic, sometimes bemused, on the smaller-scaled (perhaps even internal) struggles that Black and White treated as overt combat. Thus it has less of a sense of attack, but perhaps even more ambiguous depth. And it goes without saying that it’s danced peerlessly at the Ballet, where the women carry off with admirable sang froid the partial nudity (at top) the piece demands.
What’s more, Bella Figura shares its program with two other worthy postmodern works: William Forsythe’s The Second Detail, one of his seminal experiments from the 80's and 90's, and the brand-new Pärt I, II & III, from Forsythe disciple Helen Pickett, who is perhaps the Ballet’s second choreographer in residence (after Jorma Elo). Taken together, these pieces provide a solid sense of the breadth and depth of the ongoing, post-Balanchine intersection of ballet and modern dance. And one of the most richly satisfying evenings of thoughtful high culture the city has to offer right now.
You could argue that with the great Balanchine's death in 1983, ballet had lost its Shakespeare, and maybe even its compass. Certainly a sense of unspoken void is palpable in the works of William Forsythe, an American whose rise began almost precisely with Mr. B's demise (in an eerie coincidence, Forsythe's first landmark work, which won him the directorship of the influential Ballett Frankfurt, appeared the year of Balanchine's death). The Second Detail - seen in snippets above - was set on the National Ballet of Canada some years later (1991), but it operates almost as a purification of the atmosphere of the time: it takes place in an abstract, white-on-white rehearsal hall, in which any leader or choreographer is strangely absent. Elvis has clearly left the building, but the dancers are carrying on by themselves, trying this or that combination in various directions, searching for a new style to move them forward. The score, by perennial Forsythe collaborator Thom Willems, is amplified electronic percussion, mournful and even a little morbid, and lacking a real melody - it's inching forward, too - but nevertheless weirdly energized.
The vibe may recall Balanchine in its techno-purity, but it doesn't feel particularly committed; the dancers engage each other with a strict grace (with clean, incisive turns from Kathleen Breen Combes, James Whiteside, John Lam and Whitney Jensen, who I think was born for Forsythe), but they often just drop things in mid-step, to retire to a seat along the back, or saunter off stage, or even drop in exhaustion to the floor. The work is thus a strange mix of the classic and the casual; everything only works until one of the dancers loses interest; meanwhile the question of exactly what they're all doing - or looking for - remains an open one. In a quirky nod to that formal issue, there's even a title card with the word "THE" printed on it center stage, as in "The - what?" In a word, there's no name for this kind of dance (and there still isn't).
The Second Detail certainly haunts, but beautiful and striking as it is, you couldn't argue that it coheres - at least until its unexpected finale, when a very different figure - perhaps representative of that eponymous "second detail" - invades, and tries to shatter, the work's cool self-possession. On opening night this impassioned figure took the form of prima ballerina Lorna Feijóo, who threw herself with abandon into (and through) the icy permutations going on around her. Clad in what looked like a cross between a shower curtain and a wedding gown (she was, I think, a kind of bride), Feijóo may have been a madwoman, or perhaps some pagan spirit of the dance - but she couldn't in the end turn the tide toward her idea of passion; instead she collapsed, and then the title card did, too. I'm not sure if that meant the work had ended on a hopeful note or not, but clearly the question was closed; the statement had been made, even if it was too ambiguous to name.
As you might guess from the variety of titles, the pieces didn't quite hold together as a matched set, although there were brilliant moments in each. The strongest was probably "Layli o Majnun," which featured fierce turns from the great Larissa Ponomarenko and Yury Yanowsky as a troubled couple, shadowed by a mysterious Lorin Mathis (identified bluntly in the program as "Madness"). This is the kind of conceit that sounds corny, but that dance can bring off thrillingly, and Pickett conjured a gripping development that led to a spooky climax in which "Madness" mirrored Yanowsky's tormented moves as Ponomarenko clung to him desperately. But Pickett didn't seem to know how to resolve her story (which she had changed from its source, anyhow: in the original fable, "madness" results from the frustration of the couple's being unable to marry; here it seemed intrinsic to them). For while Mathis was apparently driven off at the end, we didn't really understand why or how; it was just the power of Ponomarenko's luuhv, apparently.
"Tsukiyo" likewise could have used a few more specifics and a bit more plot; it's a lovely pas de deux, in a highly traditional vein - a lonely swain woos the goddess of the moon, or something like that - but dramatically, it's curiously inert. Set to Pärt's haunting, and by-now-ubiquitous, "Spiegel im Spiegel" ("Mirror in Mirror"), the piece is sweet, but at least as danced by Sabi Varga and Lia Cirio (above left) - that is exquisitely but with a shade too much self-conscious grace - its mirrored passion seems to be more about its own loveliness than about love itself.
Pickett did more forceful work in the buoyant "Tabula Rasa" - set to a Pärt piece of the same name - which, as that moniker implies, was a kind of Forsythian blank slate: whatever "plot" it had seemed scrambled, and mostly it was just pure dance, and much in the master's manner, but without the formal questions and probing sense of cool that Mr. F brought to The Second Detail. Still, Pickett's main prop - a giant mothership/chandelier borrowed from Close Encounters - was gorgeous, and she scribbled all over her "Tabula" with spirit, if not coherence; indeed, at times - as in the leaping romp for the company's young men - she even tapped into a sense of competitive joy that I've never seen her mentor match.
At last came Bella Figura - itself both a striking formal statement and a complex construction freighted with metaphor - although the one thing everybody knows about it is that halfway through, the girls take their tops off. Before you point any fingers, though, ponder that the resulting imagery is curiously asexual - indeed, Kylián soon pulls together a crowd of topless men and women in flowing, blood-red skirts (see above), and we're forced to consider their lack of differentiation, the similarities of their "genders."
Sabi Varga, Rie Ichikawa and Tiffany Hedman.
Immediately we sense a loose set of themes has been declared. "Bella figura" is both an Italian catch-phrase and an attitude; roughly translated, it conveys the need to meet life's challenges with a forceful sense of beauty and style. But Kylián's choice of music - yearning melodies from the likes of Pergolesi, Vivaldi and the contemporary Lukas Foss - tells you he's interested in the cost of beauty rather than its benefits. Thus in the iconic costumes of Bella Figura - which eventually everyone dons - the dancers are both flamboyantly beautiful (in flowing red bloomers) and yet simultaneously stripped; there's a vulnerability beneath their operatic beauty, and indeed it's the need to be beautiful itself that makes them so vulnerable.
Kylián rings many changes on this fundamental insight. We see duos and trios, romantic couples and, well, triangles, in which beauty is always present, but sometimes a problem, or even just superfluous - it can't always change an ugly power dynamic; the most attractive people, in fact, sometimes walk each other off stage like dogs (beauty as a form of degradation). Elsewhere coupling is even more awkward; dancers suddenly become knock-kneed puppets (above left), or fall into fetal positions, or to the ground. Sometimes a partner will decide to twirl his intended mischievously, like a top. The ludicrous is never far from the lovely in Kylián's sometimes-sardonic vision.
And always the stage itself shape-shifts with the dance, because the idea of self-presentation is always in play. Dancers drag the curtains after them, or push them aside, to change the shape and size of their playing space; at one point they're even holding up the curtain themselves. In the piece's most iconic moment, black drapes swoop down, like a camera lens focusing on a key detail, to frame Rie Ichikawa and Kathleen Breen Combes as they kneel before each other like two tentative wraiths, gingerly reaching out, but never quite touching. Finally they shed their gowns, too, abandoning one form of beauty for another; they come completely clean, not so much as naked bodies as naked souls.
This is a strangely tender moment - a transcendent one, actually, and Ichikawa and Combes play it perfectly; but Bella Figura isn't quite over yet, and it closes with an odd sort of fire dance that I admit left me scratching my head. But then part of what makes a Kylián dance fascinating is that he leaves some questions open, and other statements ambiguous; like Black and White, Bella Figura is made for repeat viewings (and luckily I'll get a chance to ponder it again - the Ballet will bring it back next year). At any rate, against a background of flames, most of the dancers return, in a final set of variations that are dotted with curious details. One man puts his hand over a woman's mouth to silence her (it wouldn't be pretty to complain about things, now would it). But another simply reaches out to his partner and gently eases her tense shoulder down in a moment that's as resonant as anything in the piece. There's nothing to be done about the beauty part, Bella Figura whispers in the end; so you might as well relax.