Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Killer Kylián at Boston Ballet

Paulo Arrais and Lia Cirio in Wings of Wax. Photos: Rosalie O'Connor
"All Kylián," the current offering from Boston Ballet (at the Opera House through this weekend) may not tell the entire story of Jiří Kylián, one of the leading choreographic lights of the millennium. But it does convincingly chart the arc of his career, from the late apprenticeship of Symphony of Psalms (1978), to the glory days of Wings of Wax (1997), to such latter-day explorations as Tar and Feathers (2006).  

The only conceptual trouble with the evening is that its chronology is muddled (we get the earliest piece last, and the last in the middle). So for the uninitiated, the development of this remarkable artist may be a little hard to parse amid what amounts to artistic background noise. Symphony of Psalms, for instance, is too indebted to other choreographers, and the dance tradition of Stravinsky in general, to quite count as all Kylián. And Tar and Feathers more than meets Samuel Beckett half-way, in a daring attempt to meld dance with absurdist theatre. Only in Wings of Wax (at left), from roughly the mid-point of his achievement, does Kylián's unique style "come clear," if you will.

Thus I'll be treating this trio of dances in their historical (rather than programmatic) order.  Which means I'll begin with Symphony of Psalms, a sweeping, if slightly stiff, evocation of Stravinsky's late work of the same name (which was a BSO commission, btw, back in the days when the BSO commissioned important stuff).  This choral piece is, as you might guess from its title, vaguely liturgical in character, but somewhat restless in form; perhaps most striking is that Stravinsky dips into octatonic scales, the basis of Petrushka and The Rite of Spring; hence even though Psalms is grouped in the composer's "neoclassical" period, echoes of his early breakthroughs haunt it (and especially so in the forceful performance at the Ballet by the New World Chorale).

Kylián, for his part, conjures a complex ceremony that might be a courtship dance - or even a group marriage.  (Perhaps inspired by claims that octatonic scales are sourced in Persian music, the choreographer sets his couples before a cascade of carpets.)  Or is the action some kind of purge - as much of it takes the shape of combative duets alternating with exultant gestures - or perhaps even a form of funeral, as the entire community marches off into suicidal darkness at the finish (with one poor girl looking back)?  Whatever  Kylián may be aiming at precisely - and ambiguity became one of his signatures - the choreographer often echoes not only Rite of Spring but also Les Noces, so clearly the general idea is metaphoric extension of those works' cruel, communal religiosity.  In stylistic terms, this sometimes gives the piece the air of apprentice-work. Still, you can make out in its lineaments the beginnings of Kylián's mature style: couples tend to pivot against each other in what amount to choreographic co-shares; the stage is almost unconsciously laid out into a metaphoric grid, with dancers often obliquely plotted to the audience; and almost every gesture admits to at least two interpretations.
The ensemble the Ballet deployed against the work's substantial demands was heavy with established stars - Erica Cornejo, Jeffrey Cirio, Lasha Khozashvili, Sabi Varga, and Yury Yanowsky all had their moments as they mixed it up with (relative) newcomers like Adiarys Almeida, Emily Mistretta, Dalay Parrondo, and Patrick Yocum.  Thus, perhaps inevitably, the duets came off better than the patterned corps work.  I have to admit, though, that I was most struck by someone I'd never seen before - who turned out to be Avetik Karapetyan, a passionate soloist who joined the company only last year. When a new soloist steals the spotlight from half the Ballet's principal dancers, I'd say he's someone to watch.

Bright young lights likewise dominated Wings of Wax, the meditation on the myth of Icarus that showcased Kylián in mid-flight.  Here the complexities had if anything deepened, in a fluidly interlocking set of variations for eight couples (I believe there were 8 couples in Psalms, too); but the dance still felt accessible, interpretible.  A ghostly tree floated center-stage, but upside down - a resonant but ambiguous totem, orbited by a mechanical sun (a single spotlight).  Had it, like that wing-bound youth of legend, plummeted to earth from some unimaginable height?  Or were we actually looking at its fully-formed root system, while its branches were still mere stubs?  Or was the stage floor actually meant as stand-in for the sky, across which the dancers "flew"?

Whatever one made of the back-drop, the moves themselves were clearly about risk, both emotional and physical, and, yes, the inevitable falls to earth that result from taking chances.  To a mosaic of snippets from von Biber, Cage, Glass, and Bach, dancers raced ahead of each other, nearly "flew" away from each other, leaned on each other, connected and disconnected and connected again (more choreographic co-shares) in complex yet spontaneous patterns of dependency, restraint, and support (see Youtube of an earlier Nederlands Dans Theater performance, above).

And I'm happy to report that the Ballet sailed through this challenging piece with flying colors (even if it's in black and white).  By now the company boasts one of the most experienced Kylián ensembles in America, but even in this context there were startlingly electric turns from the reliable Paulo Arrais and Kathleen Breen Combes; meanwhile Lia Cirio and Whitney Jensen brought their usual grace and poise to everything they did.  Robert Kretz was more convincing when coupled than when solo - he needs  a partner to come life - but Bradley Schlagheck seemed more committed than I've remembered him in the past, and Emily Mistretta glowed with a kind of stricken glamor.

Sandwiched between these two successes, however, was the mysterious Tar and Feathers (from 2006), in which Kylián often plays the sphinx, in an apparent attempt to conjure the haunting, gnomic absurdity of late-stage Beckett.  The piece is even partly set to a scrap of the great playwright's work - his last poem, in fact, "What is the Word?," read by none other than Kylián himself (so we know precisely where he's coming from, if not exactly what he's saying).  The poem in question was dedicated to the late Joseph Chaikin, the noted American director who at the time was suffering from aphasia as the result of a stroke (Chaikin spent his last years performing texts developed for him as a result of his affliction; one of his own last performances was of Beckett's poem).

Lia Cirio, John Lam and Robert Kretz in Tar and Feathers.
Now aphasia - a disruption in the ability to process language - is, even on the surface, a challenging topic for a dance (even for a straightforward choreographer). And with Kylián in charge, you also know the dance itself will be in some ways aphasic - that is, its inability to communicate its own theme will be part and parcel of its performance.

No wonder, then, many in the audience were puzzled by the strange spectacle of Tar and Feathers (the critics didn't do much better, btw).  The piece is certainly elegant, with talented pianist Tomoko Mukaiyama up near the rafters, tinkling away on a Steinway on stilts (perhaps to suggest the distance between the musings of the aphasic and the sparkling music of Mozart, among others).  Meanwhile, downstage left, a kind of crystal built of bubble wrap glows invitingly.  The dancers attempt to approach it - perhaps they intend to describe it - but their gestures are tortured, their faces torn into poignant grimaces (at right). Often they turn away from its luminous mystery, and grope for order among themselves - the performances here were all headlong - but little of this comes to much (and their struggles are interrupted by snarls on the soundtrack, anyway, as their communal efforts inevitably collapse).

So Tar and Feathers proves a frustrating, but somehow intriguing (perhaps even darkly charming) dance - and one that slips in an absurdist wink from tragedy to burlesque and back again.  Indeed, it closes on a wry note that's more than worthy of Beckett: the last dancer steps unthinkingly on a stray panel of bubble-wrap, which pops amusingly beneath her toes: the unnameable enigma she has been so desperately trying to explain at last begins to speak for itself, unbidden.

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