Thursday, November 1, 2012

Jorma Elo wakes up at Boston Ballet

Jeffrey Cirio takes flight in Awake Only.
Perhaps Boston Ballet's intriguing "Fall Program" (through this weekend at the Opera House) is title-free because the marketing department has finally run out of catchphrases they can work around the word "Elo."

As in "Jorma Elo."  For the evening is essentially a showcase for Awake Only, a fresh dance by the Ballet's resident choreographer, whom we've been watching develop for the past seven years (yes, it has been that long).  The piece has little connection to the other works on the program - Christopher Bruce's Rooster, set to hits by the Rolling Stones, and William Forsythe's The Second Detail.  So the evening is a bit of an omnibus affair.  But each dance is a worthy one (or, in the case of Rooster, at least a fun, popular one), and Awake Only - in my opinion - is particularly interesting in that it marks another breakthrough for Elo.  So the fact that the evening is untitled shouldn't give you the idea that its' unimportant - much less unrewarding.

Now as I've written before - I've considered Elo at length - this choreographer has long been obsessed with the problem of integrating street moves and dance pop into the rigors of ballet.  In fact in "The Elo Experience," from last year, dancers Jeffrey Cirio and Larissa Ponomarenko (who together had begun to seem like muses for this choreographer) were even dressed as a club boy and a damaged ballerina, wandering the landscape of clubland.

Larissa has since moved on, of course, but Cirio remains one of the company's leading young lights, and Awake Only seems to signal that Elo's identification with this talented dancer is, if anything, becoming more intense.  But having gone solo, as it were, the choreographer seems to also have turned inward, and produced a dance unlike any we've seen so far from him - one in which he has begun to tiptoe toward true autobiography, and the kind of structured narratives you might expect from Balanchine.

Which is good news, as you could feel Elo cycling and re-cycling much the same material in his last few efforts.  But everything feels different about Awake Only, from the opening moment in which a charmingly self-possessed little boy in pajamas (the adorable Liam Lurker) raises the curtain with a magical gesture, to the blushes of dawn with which John Cuff's lighting often washes the stage, to the obvious autobiographical material that informs the dance itself. As I whispered to my partner, Dorothy - I don't think we're in clubland anymore!

And honestly, I was glad to leave behind the night club (and the cinema, another Elo obsession), and breath a little fresher choreographic air. Not that Elo is entirely free of pop convention here - that little boy "wakes up" a seemingly aged Cirio in Spielbergian style; still, he kicks off what amounts to a poignant and honest engagement with the choreographer's own road to adulthood, set (somewhat surprisingly) to testaments of faith by Bach.

Mom and Dad (a very fine Lia Cirio and Sabi Varga) are on the scene - as paragons of modern ballet, it seems, though their moves are still inflected by Elo's signature quirks and swivels.  And then there's "The Dance" itself - a bevy of ballerinas, in a conceit straight out of Balanchine - from whose ranks emerges Cirio's love interest, a surprisingly tender Kathleen Breen Combes.  What comes next struck me as structurally hazy at times, I admit - but their couplings clearly represented a coming-of-age for Cirio (who lost his shirt after one) and were studded with passionate duets, as well as moments of eloquent stillness.  The dance wraps with an intriguing glimpse of what we assume is "the future" - closing with an intensely poignant gesture that I'll always remember: Combes embraces Cirio's head - his mind - at the last moment, only to have him slip from her grasp to the floor; Elo has in effect choreographed his own death.  Needless to say, seeing Jeffrey Cirio suddenly stilled, after what amounted to a tour de force of constant, quicksilver motion (above), was in and of itself quite devastating.

Alas, the opening number on the program, a reprise of Christopher Bruce's Rooster, boasted little of this mature depth, although its various struts (set to the Rolling Stones) are undeniably fun, and offer a good showcase for the company's young soloists and hard-working members of the corps.  Here the women cut the strongest profile - dressed mostly in black and red, as cheerleaders for Hell's Angels, I suppose. Rachel Cossar again impressed with her intelligent presence in "Lady Jane," while ripe, rollicking Brittany Summer came off as the closest thing to a "Stones girl" currently at the Ballet.  Diana Albrecht and Ashley Ellis also caught my eye - although Bruce's star turn went to the elegant Whitney Jensen, who made a memorable "Ruby Tuesday."  The men had their moments, too - Robert Kretz was a credible cock-of-the-walk, John Lam dazzled as always, and young Irlan Silva made the most of "Paint it Black."

The always-commanding John Lam.
Still, in the end the trouble with Rooster is that it sells the Stones short - Bruce can't really conjure their own awareness of the destructive power they themselves were unleashing; his vision of "Sympathy for the Devil," for instance, is simply a wilder-than-ever good time (rather than a riot-with-murders, as occurred at Altamont).  Tellingly, the finale is simply a repeat of steps from the numbers that have come before; there's not even an attempt at build or summation.  Oh well, as a showcase it's fun, and I suppose it pulls a few musically illiterate boomers into the Ballet.  But beyond that, it's a wash.

The "Program" closed with a return to The Second Detail, a seminal work by William Forsythe, who has been a great influence on Elo and the Ballet's style in general.  I believe we've seen this mysterious piece twice before, yet its cool, strange extravagance - it's part collective rehearsal, part funeral for modernism, part self-referential art-object (there's a title card reading "The" on stage throughout) - has lost little of its weird appeal.  Under clinical overhead light, and set to Thom Willems' thundering, meandering score, it's all abrupt shifts - from explosive combinations to precision corps work - which cycle back to extreme, stretched solos, which themselves suddenly collapse into shrugs and slouches.  And the Ballet seemed to dance it more confidently than ever.

In fact they danced the hell out of it, with edgy, intense displays from Isaac Akiba, Paulo Arrais, and John Lam (at left); there was also off-hand virtuosity on hand from Kathleen Breen Combes, Bo Busby, Jeffrey Cirio, and Whitney Jensen - whose persona was almost made for this stuff.  The piece closes with its most perplexing gambit - an Isadora-Duncan-style diva, done up in Robert Wilson drag, staggers through the collective, briefly organizes it, then suddenly expires. The great Lorna Feij√≥o once again brought off this strange solo with confident aplomb.  She must know what it means; maybe someday she'll tell me.

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