Friday, February 17, 2012

Boston Ballet's "Simply Sublime"

Photo above and at top: Gene Schiavone.

In a way, Boston Ballet's current program "Simply Sublime" (through this weekend at the Opera House) is a milestone, because nothing in it is really new, and that's kind of the point.  The company has been edging for years toward a standing repertory that it could simply dip into for an evening's programming, the way other world-class companies can.  The idea is to see how the work in question has settled on the company, to assess how it has grown since its premiere.

And that's perhaps the central pleasure of "Simply Sublime" - the works have settled well on the Ballet's dancers, and have grown in power and subtlety; although, okay, the company hasn't done Les Sylphides since 1976, so the current dancers can't be familiar with it (few of them were even born in 1976).   But the steps of this Michel Fokine classic (at top) are so familiar, so built into our basic understanding of "ballet," that in a way you feel every major company already has the piece as a part of its artistic DNA.

Not that I'm a fan of Les Sylphides, however.  I know it's a classic in formal terms - it's the first so-called "ballet blanc," in which dance skipped away from story and became a pure meditation on music and mood.  The trouble is that the ballet's formal innovations are now all commonplaces - its sense of purification is old hat - and its "variations" hardly vary in tone (and it smooths a series of dizzingly different Chopin waltzes into one long, labored sigh).  Indeed, its content is one long sentimentally dated cliché; all these "sylphs" do is flutter and pose in attitudes of virginal melancholy, that is when they're not being half-heartedly chased by a dreamy "poet."  The girls even wear wings on their backs, for chrissakes (are they fairies? fireflies?).  I know this is the kind of ballet that makes little girls want to become ballerinas.  The trouble is that I'm a big girl now.

Indeed, I confess I've never seen Les Sylphides come off - and I still haven't, not quite.  The Ballet got closer than most companies, I suppose - the corps was certainly fine, and all the company's leading women could do these steps with their eyes closed.  But alas, as the poet, Nelson Madrigal too often landed with a clunk, and the brilliant Whitney Jensen just seemed too coolly self-possessed for this kind of fluff; and to be honest, watching the great Lorna Feijóo bourrée around and bat her eyes is like watching a jungle cat pretend it's a kitten.  Only the lovely Erica Cornejo had the right kind of dreamy presence for Les Sylphides; gently diaphanous romance is her forte, and she was ravishing throughout.  Which only goes to show you that there's no choreography so silly that some dancer somewhere can't make it seem transcendent.

Photo: Eric Antoniou
The program then leapt decades, to Christopher Wheeldon's celebrated Polyphonia (at left) which proved the triumph of the evening.  In one way, the piece seems a world apart from Les Sylphides; the Fokine is all curves, the Wheeldon all angles.  But seen from another perspective, the two are almost like twins separated at birth (by almost a century) - or rather Polyphonia feels like the latest branch in the Fokine family tree.

This is because Polyphonia (the name means "many voices") channels and re-focuses bits and pieces of the "white ballet" tradition into a stunningly harmonious - if slightly cold - new whole (only this time the ballet is violet, not blanc, as at left).  When I first saw this dance a few years back, I imagined (like a lot of critics) that it was essentially derived from Balanchine - perhaps because the costuming reminded me of the great Mr. B. at his most abstract.

But as it has settled on the Ballet, Polyphonia seems to have opened up into a cornucopia of references to everyone from Pilobolus to Mark Morris (even Petipa gets a nod). Yet intriguingly, like Les Syphides, it maintains for its many entwined couples a single mood - alienated, ironic, perhaps post-romantic but not actually unromantic - even though (again like Les Sylphides) it's drawn from various piano pieces from a single composer's career (in this case the great György Ligeti).  This time, however, each piece is allowed its own integrity (and each was played astoundingly well by the talented Freda Locker).  And all the dancing was exemplary - my eye was caught again by Paul Craig and Dalay Parrondo, as well as Adiarys Almeida and Jeffrey Cirio.  But the dance belonged to the calm contortions of Kathleen Breen Combes, whose duets with Yury Yanowsky were always serenely disturbing.

Last up was Mr. B. himself - his sprawling Symphony in Three Movements, to the Stravinsky score of the same name (and that composer's first major work after his emigration to America).  Balanchine's dance dates from some three decades later - and thus perhaps the strange, parodic edge he seems to have given  his fellow Russian's attitude toward his new home.  Symphony was seen back in 1945 as a neoclassical tribute to the fight against fascism, but in Balanchine's hands it turns into a sardonic smile at all-American "drive" and "energy," with squads of bathing beauties in Esther Williams swimsuits (see masthead) lined up to dive into invisible swimming pools, as athletic boys bounce back and forth on a virtual basketball court.  It's fun, but I'm not convinced it's actually major Balanchine; it's all variation with little real development - the dancers are divers, then pilots, then maybe some kind of giant machine, but who knows why or wherefore - and the cornucopia of movement sometimes feels crowded on the Opera House stage.  Still, once again the Ballet's performance of the work had clearly matured since the last time we saw it, and Lia Cirio, Dalay Parrondo, and especially Isaac Akiba (one of the Ballet's best jumpers, and happiest athletes in general) all acquitted themselves exceptionally well.  Still, the piece's relationship to what had come before felt at best oblique.  Neither attuned to its score nor its true period, Symphony in Three Movements seems to dance to a political rather than emotional or aesthetic beat.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for the very honest review.
    I saw Simply Sublime this past Saturday. Les Sylphides put me to sleep, literally, and I love classical ballet. I woke up for the Symphony and that was the best piece of the night. While I enjoy Balanchine and love Stravinsky, I think the stage of the Opera House is too small to give you the full intended effect of the part. Plus, the outfits for the male dancers were disconcertingly confusing as the white shirts would set off their physique in a distracting way (and not in a good way). I would have enjoyed the show better if Les Sylphides was replaced by another contemporary piece.

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