Boston Ballet on Top Form in Rare London Appearance

 United KingdomUnited Kingdom Boston Ballet 50th Anniversary Season:  Dancers of the Boston Ballet and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Jonathan McPhee (conductor), Coliseum, London,  3.7.2013. (JPr)

Programme 1

Choreography: George Balanchine
Music: Tchaikovsky
Costumes: after Karinska
Lighting: JohnCuff

Afternoon of a Faun
Choreography: Vaslav Nijinsky
Music: Debussy
Costumes: Leon Bakst
Lighting: John Cuff

Plan to B
Music: Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber
Choreography and Costumes: Jorma Elo
Lighting: John Cuff

Symphony in Three Movements
Choreography: George Balanchine
Music: Stravinsky
Lighting: Les Dickert

George Balanchine's Serenade. Photo by Gene Schiavone
George Balanchine’s Serenade.
Photo by Gene Schiavone

Looking around at my fellow ballet critics we seem to be a group of two extremes: those quite young, the rest very venerable. I guess I am edging towards the latter but I am thankfully yet to embrace the fact in the way some do. So a few – like I was – would have been at The London Coliseum in 1983 when Boston Ballet made their last visit here bringing with them Rudolf Nureyev’s vibrant production of Don Quixote and having the ‘main man’ dancing alongside them during one of his exhausting summer ‘Festival’ seasons when he appeared at every performance. I remember being there for a Saturday matinee and how the audience collectively gasped as Nureyev wobbled a little during the Grand Pas de Deux. Such was the microscope that his dancing was under throughout his career but it is not a false memory to say that for most of these exhilarating years, when he was a regular visitor to London, he still leapt higher, spun faster and had more stage presence than many younger colleagues then – or most male dancers now.

Anyway I digress, though this was their last visit and this time they were back with the first of two programmes designed to showcase ‘the diversity of Boston Ballet’s repertoire and the versatility of its artists’. Curated by their artistic director, Mikko Nissinen, the glossy colourful printed programme told us what we would see was ‘choreography rich in innovation that spans a century in dance history’. As great as it was, I would have preferred them to bring us something pitched somewhere between a full length ballet and – Nijinsky’s languid and two-dimensional Faun notwithstanding – three fairly short works on a bare stage with often subdued lighting that juxtaposed ‘classic’ Balanchine with something rather younger by their resident choreographer, Jorma Elo. Even without some of the repetition of dance movement that can only be expected, everything was mostly so helter-skelter, gymnastic and smiley that it all seemed more West Coast USA than East Coast Bostonian refinement. At times I longed for some repose from all the to-ing and fro-ing though it made me appreciate these moments more when they came, even if they were rather fleeting. The company are clearly on top form and there was no hint of jet-lag in any of the performances from the most junior member of the corps to the principals. It must be noted that everything on this programme favoured the female dancers with the men having much less to do.

Balanchine’s 1935 Serenade was his first American work, though set to Tchaikovsky’s music that sounds even more Russian than is to be expected from him. So thoughts of his homeland – that he was banished from – could never have been far away when he choreographed this piece. The opening tableaux is iconic in its own way with 17 women standing with their right arms out at a 45-degree angle and wrists bent as if trying to shield themselves from something. This line-up would be repeated in his later work we would see (Symphony in Three Movements) as would the occasional hints of a ‘Mexican Wave’ amongst the dancers, long before it came to the world’s attention in 1986! Perhaps with more meaning than Balanchine cared to divulge, the finest moment for me of this love-thwarted-by-fate work is that towards the end of the ‘Russian Theme’ when the ‘heroine’ has been left prostrate and a man enters (only one of a few in Serenade) followed closely by a ballerina whose hands ‘blindfold’ him. Are these her lost love and an Angel of Death? In what is a moment reminiscent of MacMillan’s Song of the Earth they then engage in an elegiac trio.

Serenade is very much an ensemble work that comes to life, with deliberate care, through basic classroom steps and positions. By contrast the dancers are also made to whirl around and sometimes even disappear into the wings. As suggested it is not all pure dance and has its narrative passages, especially at the end when the man returns again ‘blindfolded’ only to be led away leaving the lovelorn heroine to be consoled by the female corps before being exalted and carried aloft offstage. There were fine, well-drilled, performances from all concerned notably Lia Cirio (the angel), Ashley Ellis (the heroine), as well as, Misa Kuranaga, Nelson Madrigal and Bradley Schlagheck, all whose names evoke the wonderful international mix of the Boston Ballet’s roster of dancers. They all responded superbly to Jonathan McPhee’s energetic conducting of Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings, and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra played with great commitment here and throughout the evening.

Nijinsky’s very familiar 1912 L’Après-midi d’un faune with its Grecian vase poses was the oddity amongst the ballets performed in Boston Ballet’s first London selection. I have seen Nureyev in the role of Faun and Altan Dugaraa had none of the ‘otherworldliness’ the character needs, even though because of his youth there was a palpable frisson of erotic tension between him and Lorna Feijóo’s wide-eyed Nymph. This was a careful recreation of something that is more than just a passing moment in ballet’s history as shown here.

Jorma Elo’s Plan to B predates the start of his time as Boston Ballet’s resident choreographer but has all his familiar trademarks of high-energy movement and accompanying Baroque music – this time a recording of a composition by the seventeenth-century violin virtuoso, Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber. Involving just four women and two men there are classical steps here that are given a contemporary update for about 14 minutes of movement for movement’s sake. The dancers just stop moving and freeze in their current position at the end to bring it to a close without a positive conclusion. Its very speed challenges the Boston Ballet’s bravura technique for body placement and phrasing to the maximum and Lia Cirio, Whitney Jensen, Bo Busby, Jeffrey Cirio, John Lam and Sabi Varga responded magnificently. Mis Cirio’s almost rubber-limbed ability to contort her body particularly caught my eye.

It was Balanchine’s 1972 Symphony in Three Movements to Stravinsky’s jazz-influenced score that brought the evening to a close. The choreography has an engrossing ‘architecture’ to it. We see the three lead couples (Kathleen Breen Combes, Misa Kuranaga, Rie Ichikawa with Paulo Arrais, Jeffrey Cirio and Bradley Schlagheck respectively) enter one after the other during the first movement with the women wearing leotards of different shades of pink. 32 dancers are involved in two separate ensembles: 16 ponytailed women in white leotards, and five male-female couples (the women in black). At the start we see all the rigorously precise footwork, high-energy unison phrases and tricky spatial groupings that is expected from Balanchine, yet the second movement brings us something different with an intimate and more tranquil pas de deux for Breen Combes and Arrais. They seem to be looking for something whilst – with fists over their eyes at one point – ultimately not wanting to see it in the end. The third movement raises the energy level once more and the shifting stage patterns are extraordinary with a tableaux of seeming unresolved tension at the end that very effectively bookends the one we saw as the curtain was first raised a couple of hours earlier. This was very much an ensemble work once again but Misa Kuranaga’s petite eloquence and precise feet impressed here as earlier in the same choreographer’s Serenade.

Let’s hope we won’t have to wait another 30 years before this wonderful company arrives back in London, as I shall not be around then!

Jim Pritchard

For more about Boston Ballet’s remaining performances at the London Coliseum and other ballet to go to there, visit ENO