Friday, March 9, 2012

Boston Ballet's "Play with Fire"

Photo(s) by Rosalie O'Connor.

In Boston Ballet's "Play with Fire" program (through this weekend at the Opera House), two of the pieces are re-heated; we've seen Bella Figura, and an early version of Jorma Elo's Sharper Side of Dark, before.

And yet these are the evening's dances that burn bright indeed - I suppose once again proving the old saw that you should never catch a dance premiere - instead, wait for the steps to settle on a company, and watch them unfold in a way you never dreamed possible. But by all means see these works now! Certainly "Play with Fire" showcases some of the best dancing the Ballet has done this year, and maybe in years.  For long stretches it's dazzling, even awe-inspiring.  What's more, Jorma Elo's re-working of his earlier SHARP Side of DARK seems to have burnt away much of the mannerism that has sometimes obscured this choreographer's true gifts.  Sharper Side of Dark isn't just the most beautiful ballet he has yet created, it may eventually count as a major breakthrough.

And it's clear what has brought about this transformation; Elo has finally embraced the pas de deux, that core balletic statement which he has so often danced around (sorry!). This choreographer has always been obsessed with ballet's place in modernity; indeed, he has consciously replaced the moonlight and willows of Swan Lake and its ilk with the lighting grids and technology of clubland; if that is where romance happens today, Elo seems to be saying, then that is where ballet must follow.

The trouble has always been that Elo's (accurate, I think) vision of modern movement - jumpy,  independent, always wary - has been at odds with the bedrock of ballet, which has always been about romantic commitment.  Thus his dances have often come off as ballet with ADD - his dancers have always swerved around each other, unable to connect, and so unable, in the end, to connect with us.

Jeffrey Cirio in Rooster.
But he somehow has transcended this problem in Sharper Side of Dark, which is basically a long series of duets set to Bach's Goldberg Variations.  True, the "lovers" here only intermittently touch - and the twitchiness of Elo's usual manner has hardly been entirely banished.  But often these partners now move in synchrony - and it's a gorgeous, ravishing, hurtling kind of grace.  Elo is helped immeasurably by the fact that the Ballet is now technically so promethean, and so in tune with his various modes; on the evening I saw the program, the stunning performances just kept coming (and coming), so I simply have to commend everyone in the dance:  Lia Cirio, Kathleen Breen Combes, Corina Gill, Whitney Jensen, Paulo Arrais, Jeffrey Cirio, Sabi Varga, and James Whiteside were all at their absolute best.  Bravo.  This kind of performance only makes you wish the Ballet could bring Sharper back in repertory again, and soon.

The second item on the program, however, was nearly as strong - and in its thematic range and depth, more ambitious than anything Elo has yet attempted.  Jiří Kylián's Bella Figura (at top, and masthead), an exquisite meditation on identity and gender that by now is a postmodern classic, ravished us when we first saw it last season, and in the meantime it seems to have only grown more mysterious and evocative.  And once again, performances were even subtler and more affecting than I remembered them: Rie Ichikawa in particular was unforgettable as the proto-soul who seems to be struggling out of a voluptuous darkness and into some sort of exquisite, though vulnerable, consciousness.  (I'd bet this will be remembered as the performance of Ichikawa's career.) But once again, the great turns kept coming - some nights there's almost an "Oh yeah? Watch this!" dynamic in operation at the Ballet. Lorna Feijóo tore up the floor with Lasha Khozashvili (who's a good match for her, o ye casting gods), and there was more finely poised work from Dalay Parrondo, Sarah Wroth, Tiffany Hedman, John Lam, and Paul Craig, as well as the tireless Sabi Varga, who has of late cut his own profile as a reliably committed and intriguing presence onstage.

Bella Figura seems to keep ramifying in your mind long after the curtain has fallen - so it's a tough act to follow; but alas, Christopher Bruce's Rooster, the last item on the program, was hardly up to the task, friendly and funky as it may be.  But then just how deep a dance do you really think you can choreograph to a score by the Rolling Stones?  As a general rule, a rich choreographic language requires a rich musical one, and let's be honest, the Stones, for all their rude appeal, hardly weave instrumentals of any real development or depth.  And take the sneer out of Mick Jagger - i.e., plunk him down into a ballad - and boy, does his basic weakness as a singer suddenly loom; often, in "softer" Stones hits like "Lady Jane" and "As Tears Go By," his phrasing is relentlessly labored, and you can hear him landing on pitches with a flat, ungainly thud.  Ouch.

Oh, well.  I admit Christopher Bruce did what he could with the material - he conjured a kind of prom night that easily admitted a variety of modes and moods, from the Stones' folk-rolk noodling to their darkest "Satanic" doodling.  James Whiteside had fun strutting as the titular (and very self-aware) cock-of-the-walk, while Jeffrey Cirio impressed as a smoother, cooler customer; likewise Rachel Cossar and especially Whitney Jensen had some dazzling moments in the spotlight.  Still - this was the premiere of the evening, and really everything in material as superficial as this depends on the confidence and daring of the performers.  So my recommendation is - bring this one back!  Rooster will never amount to much intellectually, but something tells me that re-heated, with all the performers more familiar with it, it may be quite a bit hotter - or at least ignite with something of the Stones' empty fire.

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