Sunday, May 17, 2015

An evening of beautiful, thought-provoking things at Boston Ballet

Last Thursday, Boston Ballet performed a set of four short works: Balanchine’s Theme and Variations, Jeffrey Cirio’s Fremd, William Forsythe’s Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude, and Jerome Robbins’s The Concert

Cirio and Kuranaga in Theme and Variations

All in all, it was an enormously satisfying evening, with an excellent sense of balance, drive, and style. The program opened with Theme and Variations, Balanchine’s 1947 production of Tchaikovsky for two soloists and corps de ballet. The piece is one of the central works of his neo-classical style, along with the Bizet Symphony in C Major. It’s much more dry than earlier pieces like Serenade and Apollo, with a greater emphasis on the movements of the dance d’école and less on character. The choreography is very cerebral as well - it follows the theme and variations format with its own kind of theme and variations, beginning with simple tendus and for the main two dancers and then stretching this out as a basis for the ensuing movement. I saw it opening night with Misa Kuranaga and Jeffrey Cirio in the main roles. The part is perfect for Cirio, with his clean, bold athleticism. Kuranaga’s not quite as natural for Balanchine; she tends to ornament her dancing a lot and the style demands direct simplicity, particularly in the first, quick variation. On the other hand, in the Russian variation, Kuranaga’s exquisite leg lifts were gorgeously expressive of the music. 

I was amazed that Cirio could even concentrate on performing the first ballet (yay professionalism), since the second piece was the world premiere of his own work, fremd, a short ballet that explores alienation and disconnect between people. For much of the piece, lighting divides the stage into two sections; the part on the right is occupied by a solo dancer (Altan Dugaraa) and the left side occupied by different couples and ensembles. Dugaraa’s part has a somewhat different movement style as well - clean and accented, while the others have twisted, morphing lines. The music alternates between sections of  19th-century piano nocturnes and sections of sound art by Olaf Bender and techno by Aphix Twin. In each section, the choreography reacts clearly, and often beautifully, to the music. The third section, to Bender’s fremd (from whence the ballet takes its title) pulses along with its music, the dancers freezing and reanimating with the accents of the music’s beats, all the while interacting in sometimes amusing ways to the German text being read. There was an intense moment in the middle of the second section - to Chopin’s Nocturne no. 19 - where everything on stage froze. The pianist poured through one of Chopin’s elaborate ornamental passages, and the only movement on stage was the intertwining of the two dancers’ hands. 

Altan Dugaraa in fremd

I was impressed - I’ve never seen Cirio’s choreography before, and the entire piece was thoughtfully done. It was intelligent, musical, and moving, and perhaps most impressive, direct. I hope that Boston commissions more work from Cirio in the future, both because I enjoyed the work immensely and because I’m heartened by the prospect of the ballet world encouraging at least one young choreographic voice that isn’t possessed by a white man (Cirio is Filipino-American)  - there’s been a lot of noise recently about the rising choreographic stars in ballet, Justin Peck and Liam Scarlett, and while I’ve enjoyed the works that I’ve seen thus far by both of them, they’re also pretty much exactly what the ballet world’s been producing for the last 60 years.

The third work of the evening, The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude, was oddly more of a puzzle for me. The Forsythe work that I’ve encountered before in my life has never been to classical music (he often collaborates with contemporary composer Thomas Willems). It’s not necessarily that this piece, to Schubert’s Great Symphony, is out of style of the choreographer, precisely, but it does seem to be more like Balanchine on speed, minus a lot of the musical-choreographic connections that make works like Theme and Variations so much fun. At the same time, the break-neck pace and the brilliantly brittle performances from Kathleen Breen Combes, Erica Cornejo, Misa Kuranaga, Bradley Shlagheck, and John Lam certainly made for an absorbing viewing experience.

The program ended with Jerome Robbins’ The Concert, which is a delightful, good-humored send-up of classical music and classical ballet. The ballet excels because Robbins reacts so genuinely to Chopin's musical cues and because the humor works on so many different levels - from pure pratfalls to satire. It’s hard not to love The Concert, no matter who it’s performed by, but I was very impressed with Lasha Khozashvili’s comedic chops - something he doesn’t get a lot of opportunities as a ballet dancer to show off. I don’t really want to say anything more about the piece because I don’t want to spoil any of the jokes. Suffice to say - you will enjoy it!

Boston Ballet in The Concert

When I saw the program on Thursday, I would have said that there was little unifying theme to the evening - something I completely enjoy as an audience member. As I look back on the concert, however, what strikes me is that the program is cerebral in the best of ways - the works amply reward the cognitive effort you bring to them. But they don't shut you out either if all you want to do is sit and enjoy the splendor of movement.

Boston Ballet: Thrill of Contact, Thursday, May 14, 2015. Theme and Variations: choreography by George Balanchine, music by Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky, soloists: Jeffrey Cirio and Misa Kuranaga; fremd: choreography by Jeffrey Cirio, music by Frederic Chopin, John Field, Olaf Bender, and Aphex Twin, soloists: Lia Cirio, Emily Mistretta, Whitney Jensen, Paulo Arrais, Bradley Shlagheck, Paul Craig, Altan Dugaraa; The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude: choreography by William Forsythe, music by Franz Schubert, soloists: Kathleen Breen Combes, Erica Cornejo, Misa Kuranaga, Bradley Shlagheck, and John Lam; The Concert: choreography by Jerome Robbins, music by Frederic Chopin, soloists: Ashley Ellis, Lasha Khozashvili, Dusty Button.


  1. I loved Thrill of Contact and enjoyed reading about your experience with it. How fabulous that you travel the world and get to see ballet wherever you go!

  2. Thanks, Leah! It's a pretty great way to see the ballet - I'm heading to Moscow next month, so I'll be posting lots about the Bolshoi and the Stanislavsky.