Friday, February 28, 2014

Boston Ballet gets Close to the cutting edge

Whitney Jensen and Jeffrey Cirio in C. to C. (Close to Chuck) Reborn.  (Photo: Rosalie O'Connor)

I think Bostonians know by now that an evening of contemporary work from Boston Ballet is going to be an Event with a capital "E." And Close to Chuck (which closes this weekend at the Opera House) did not disappoint, as it included not only a work of new and striking maturity from Jorma Elo, the Ballet's prolific house choreographer, but also a remarkable premiere from José Martinez (a leading light of the European scene), and a reprise of Bella Figura, the Jiří Kylián masterpiece that has won the Czech dance-maker a loyal local following.

I admit, though, that these three dances had little in common, aside from a clear reliance on technical prowess - which gives me another chance to repeat a common refrain on the Hub Review: damn, does our dance crew rock or what?  The opening ensemble in particular was simply dazzling - Kathleen Breen Combes, Lia Cirio, Whitney Jensen, Jeffrey Cirio, John Lam, and Sabi Varga took Elo's revision of his ABT commission Close to Chuck - now retitled C. to C. (Close to Chuck) Reborn (got all that?) - to some new plane of clean, cool perfection.

Indeed, its sleek surface belied the fact that C. to C. Reborn is essentially a valentine to artist Chuck Close, who has brought all manner of postmodern techniques to bear on what (at bottom) probably counts as traditional portraiture.  Close's pictures are generally intimate headshots, but their scale is outsized, and though they're derived from photographs, they're built up of busy brushwork (usually, that is - Close has worked in everything from to finger paint to fingerprints).  Look at a Close up close (yes, I think the pun is intentional) and you're likely to only see throbbing corpuscles of color (as below); step further back, though, and the blobs mix together like pixels, and the subject suddenly stares back at you - often in confrontational repose - from a rigidly defined grid.

It's that dichotomy that gives so much of Close's work its peculiar energy - and its parallels with the music of Philip Glass (who provided the score) and yes, the choreography of Elo himself.  Most of Glass's work, of course, is built of high-energy musical cells - but Elo's dances, too, are marked by a sense of strict design but busy, almost hyper-active detail.  That correspondence isn't the true subject of C. to C., though - the dance is more about the impact of two disabilities on this artist's oeuvre. The first of these is what's known as prosopagnosia, or "face blindness" - yes, this master portraitist cannot recognize faces; hence, perhaps, his obsession with them - and also the curious distance that underlies his likenesses, and why recognition itself is always an issue in his work. (This, btw, also parallels something deep in Elo's choreography, which often swivels and darts elusively around points of actual contact.)

The second disability is even more wrenching - in mid-career, Close suffered a spinal artery collapse which left him largely paralyzed, although after valiant rehab he managed to regain some muscular control, and can reportedly walk a few steps (although he relies on a wheelchair). What's more, by working with a prosthesis, the indomitable Close found a way to paint again - and has actually been quite prolific since what he refers to as "The Event." His work perhaps inevitably has gained a softer edge - but he generally holds to his earlier standards of photorealism through ingenious tricks of application and scale.

All that background may not be immediately apparent to a casual viewer of C. to C. Reborn, but the dance is clearly "pregnant," if you will, with a mystery that Close's biography easily illuminates. What's actually ironic about the finished product, however, is that even as Elo celebrates a hyperactive, resolute will, the choreographer has actually streamlined his characteristic groove. C. to C. Reborn is cleaner and clearer than anything he has done before, and as a result, the silvery streams of athletic grace he's known for flow with a deeper, more persuasive energy; indeed, as a metaphor for the rush of artistic inspiration, they're stunning, almost overwhelming.

Perhaps they shine so brightly because Elo also grapples honestly with disability, injury, and incapacity;  indeed C. to C. Reborn actually opens in the dark (above) with many of the dancers wrapped in heavy, funereal skirts; they're constrained, even clumsy - but still fighting. Needless to say, by the luminous finale (below), even these grim priests have learned to soar again (before a Close self-portrait that all but burns with defiant fire). And in between these first and final points, Elo has layered many touching moments - a stroke down the spine tenderly references "the Event," for instance, while the dancers' gentle, respectful gesture toward onstage pianist Bruce Levinston (who essays Glass's elegiac score with consummate artistry) seems to connect all the corresponding dots between Elo, Glass, and Close. And throughout we simply watch awe-struck as the Ballet's Elo specialists - particularly the remarkable Lia Cirio, who has mastered the choreographer's swiveling, scissoring moves, and the brilliant Whitney Jensen, who seems calmly poised even at blinding speeds - put their own polished stamp on this freshly minted masterpiece.

Sabi Varga and Lia Cirio in C Reborn. (Photo - Jessica Rinaldi)

Well! There were other pieces on this program too, of course, although the next premiere -  José Martinez's Resonance - slightly disappointed after all this bedazzlement.  Perhaps, however, it simply needs to steep for a while, as it were, with the Ballet; C. to C. Reborn is, remember, a re-boot, and the company knows its maker well - in comparison, Resonance felt somehow vague, as if the dancers knew the where but not the wherefore of the piece yet.

Of course the "where," as it were, of Resonance was something of an issue all by itself - because for his first American commission, Martinez (who hails from the National Dance Company of Spain) conjured a kind of giant shadow box to contain what amounted to a big, gorgeously abstracted, post-romantic extravaganza.  What's more, the box was always in motion; its panels shifted constantly to re-configure the choreographic space, and send new patterns of shadow - from light sources in the wings - playing over the monochrome set (and the dancers themselves).  Sometimes an onstage grand piano (see masthead) would be revealed, only to later disappear (there was another one down in the pit); sometimes after an intense pas de deux, a couple would vanish behind a rolling screen, and so disappear from the dance as well; once we even got to see a panel do a full 180, stage center, with the dancers tugging on it like stage hands.

What we didn't get was what all this was supposed to be about. Martinez clearly had not just shadows but the idea of doubles on his mind - not only were there twin pianos, but two leading couples, and a double corps (one girls, one boys). So the foundation of the dance was clear - but its development sometimes felt like an exercise in technical interplay; and alas, the accompaniment, Liszt's brilliant but opaque Transcendental Études (with, I think, some transcriptions of Mozart mixed in) somehow underlined this problem.  Still, the dancers looked good, even if they didn't seem entirely sure why they were up there; and rising stars Dusty Button and Alejandro Virelles looked even better. Button brought her trademarked wounded glamour to bear on an impeccably-executed turn with Virelles, a sexy newcomer who for the first time seemed to bloom in Martinez's swooning lifts and leaps.

Sabi Varga, Rie Ichikawa, and Petra Conti in Bella Figura.  (Liza Voll Photography)

Finally came the familiar Bella Figura (above), which by now the Ballet has in its bones, and which it danced once more to the hilt.  And to be honest, it was a pleasure to once more take in Jiří Kylián's wry ode to outer presentation and inner vulnerability. For Figura has the kind of depth that can stand up to repeated viewings; there's always something new to see in it, and always much to re-enjoy.  

The opening warm-up, for instance, remains wryly oblique, and the double "birth" at the top of the dance proper (with Sabi Varga sliding down the birth canal while Rie Ichikawa reaches out to us from the clutches of the curtain) is as mysteriously gripping as ever.  The one thing I think the Ballet hasn't quite captured is the deadpan humor behind the antics of Kylián's fashionistas - who often walk each other around like dogs. (The cocky Yury Yanowsky got the idea, but I wasn't sure anyone else did.) But the company grasps the poignant depth of the piece, that's certain - and in the end that's what stays with you. On opening night, the fragile Rie Ichikawa was as moving as ever, and her tentative duet with Kathleen Breen Combes proved a tender miracle; meanwhile new arrival Petra Conti was crisply compelling against company mainstay Sabi Varga (above).  The word on the street is that the company will be retiring Bella Figura after these performances - so if you haven't seen it, this may be your last chance. Although truth be told, I would be more than happy to see it again, should the powers-that-be change their minds.

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