Saturday, May 11, 2013

Another triumph at the Ballet

Patrick Yocum, Bradley Schlagheck, Whitney Jensen and Lawrence Rines in Symphony in C. Photos by Gene Schiavone.

At 49 years of age (yes, next season marks their big 5-0), Boston Ballet has become the most reliable arts organization in the city - hands down. I go there with more confidence than I bring to any other local venue, in any art form. When my partner looks at me and says, "What are we seeing tonight?" and I say, "The Ballet," he always just says, "Oh, good." (Well, sometimes in a rough week, he says "Thank God.") Indeed, among Boston's "Big Culture" behemoths, the Ballet's consistency leaves the BSO, the MFA, the BLO, and the Huntington (great as they often are) in the dust. At the Ballet, a reviewer never has to separate the wheat from the chaff - it's all wheat; one merely teases the tastiest grains from the rest.  It's the easiest critical gig in town. (In fact it's not really a "critical" gig at all.)

Right now the troupe is in the midst of a suite of performances that by its close will have stretched several weeks. Tonight wraps their startling pairing of Balanchine classics with Chroma, by edgy new talent Wayne McGregor; next Thursday brings more Balanchine (the master's luminous CoppĂ©lia). In between we were blessed with a treat from the Ballet's "Next Generation," which included a delightful version of Jerome Robbins' Fanfare.  And all this came after a sumptuous Sleeping Beauty last month. Needless to say, dance fans have been happy campers this spring.

But back to Chroma, which couldn't be more opposed in spirit to Balanchine's Serenade and Symphony in C - and so showcases the expressive range available to the Ballet today. Balanchine is ballet's Shakespeare, and like the Bard, he is enraptured by the feminine.  Indeed, often when the boy (sometimes a single boy) does show up in a Balanchine ballet, he's an obvious factotum for Mr. B himself - as is the case in the luminous Serenade, which opens (see masthead) as a kind of apotheosis of ballet class (it was actually written for all the girls in training with Mr. B at the time). They might be a choir of angels, but these maidens are in an attitude of chaste denial, until Balanchine begins to work elegant variations on their solitude (complicated here and there by an apparently disposable boyish partner) led by Ashley Ellis and Misa Kuranaga, and set to Tchaikovsky's famous Serenade for Strings.  

A story of sorts takes shape (abstracted from standard ballet tragedy, like the choreography itself) as a mature danseur finally arrives (Nelson Madrigal), led blindly by a seeming angel of death (Dusty Button). It's easy (as it is in the case of Apollo) to equate this figure with Mr. B himself, but perhaps this nameless male is meant instead as a kind of embodiment of the masculine principle. At any rate, after a series of piercing duets with "the Waltz Girl," as she has come to be known (Ellis), he abandons her - led off again, blindly, by that dark personification of Terpsichore. Devastated - but supported, and perhaps mourned, by her bevy of vestals - she dances her own poignant apotheosis.

It is among the most haunting works in the canon, and the Ballet performed it all but flawlessly (and with a noticeably higher finish than they managed some five years ago). Kuranaga was, needless to say, exquisite, although Ellis seemed to me a bit too sturdy in her opening variations to hint at the ruin to come. Still, she seemed to mature emotionally as the dance progressed; Madrigal wasn't as technically dazzling as some of the Ballet's men now are, but he can cast a palpable romantic spell - and in her brief, stalking appearances, Button suggested a spooky alienation. The corps, however, outshone all the soloists, I think - which is a good thing, because Balanchine always makes intense, complex demands on his corps; here they were beautifully synchronous, technically pure, and superb in attitude - all but perfect.

It was a bracing plunge, however, from this elevated pathos to the harsh beauty of Chroma. Angular, jarring, knotty, almost painful in its extremity - yet set in a pure, pale box - Wayne McGregor's choreography seems to be about romantic partners who yearn for freedom more than each other. Thus it's worth mentioning, I think, that the sexual frame of Balanchine is here long gone; men and women are both in unisex costumes (at one point there's a same-sex variation), and the girls aren't emotional victims anymore (although sometimes they look like physical ones). Tragedy isn't an option, even though there's still a chorus - but it hangs back from getting involved, preferring to wait in judgment, peering at the combat from the back of the stage (below), or simply waiting for it to finish, with backs turned. 

The cold struggles of Chroma: Lasha Khozashvili and Lia Cirio.

Meanwhile, center stage, both sexes struggle, they writhe; they climb over, grapple, and all but attack each other, before suddenly drooping in exhaustion (above), or freezing in odd stand-offs. The men attempt to manipulate the women, and other times punish them; the women respond with oddly predatory japes and threats. McGregor is ceaselessly inventive, but almost cruel himself in his demands on the dancers' bodies.

So Chroma is not a pretty picture, but it's a fascinating one nonetheless, and set to one of the most arresting dance scores I've heard in years, by Joby Talbot and Jack White of The White Stripes. I know what you're thinking, but rest assured, this isn't the kind of ambience-driven simplistic pop one usually gets from rock musicians gone high-cult. Instead, it's more like Stravinsky gone bossa nova; the score calls for literally four kitchens' worth of percussion, as well as beefed-up brass and winds in the pit; but for once the point isn't just volume (although there's plenty of that).  The timbres are haunting, the motifs sophisticated; passion seems to fight it out with alienation as we listen - the score alone all but blew the roof off the Opera House (the ballet orchestra kicks *ss too, btw).

The dancers did as well - indeed, they received the longest, loudest ovation I've ever heard at the Ballet, or maybe anywhere; the audience wouldn't stop clapping, and wouldn't sit down. This was, to put it simply, because the performers were all brilliant across the board.  One expected superbly crisp work from Paulo Arrais, Lia Cirio, John Lam, Jeffrey Cirio, and particularly the coolly virtuosic Kathleen Breen Combes, who always excel in postmodern attack.  The surprising news was that more classic specialists like Misa Kuranaga, Whitney Jensen, and Lasha Khozashvili had the same relentless edge, and younger dancers Isaac Akiba and Bradley Schlagheck likewise seemed as strong or stronger than I've ever seen them.   

It's true that Chroma seems to just stop rather than end; it lacks the structural development of Serenade. But to be honest, it also leaves you with a haunting question: with the emotional underpinnings of classic ballet stripped away, is that kind of structure even possible?  Or has the frustrating "freedom" of postmodern life rendered the grand statement obsolete?

Such fraught doubts were banished, however, as the curtain rose on Balanchine's ravishing Symphony in C (at top) which arrived like the most powerful palate-cleanser ever devised.  It's set to Bizet's symphony of the same name, and of course key (written with sparkling exuberance when the composer was all of 17); and it is, I think, the divertissement to end all divertissements; Balanchine, who devised it at age 43 as Le Palais de Cristal (which gives you some hint of its thematic links to the later Jewels), seems to be able to tap into Bizet's youthful invention while retaining some deeper atmosphere of worldly experience.  The variations keep coming, the scheme keeps growing in size (by the finale there are some 50 dancers onstage), and yet the work never loses its butterfly-lightness, its knowing brilliance.

And amazingly, many of the dancers who had powered through Chroma came back and triumphed again without missing a beat. This time it was Jeffrey Cirio, Whitney Jensen, Misa Kuranaga, and Lasha Khozashvili who were in their element; but they were dazzlingly matched by Paulo Arrais, Lia Cirio, Kathleen Breen Combes, and Bradley Schlagheck (who this year seems to be coming into his own in a general way).  It was the kind of performance you never want to end, the kind that (like some negative twin of Chroma) really can't end until the curtain falls.  Indeed, I'm sure for many in the audience, it's still lighting up their dreams.

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