Boston Opera House, Boston, MA; May 24, 2014
There was a lot of mediocre dancing in the performance of “Jewels” that I saw, but it didn’t matter because I had come to the theatre to see one dancer, and she did not disappoint. As I watched Ashley Ellis as lead ballerina in “Diamonds,” I thought of the words of English dance writer Kathrine Sorley Walker, who praised the legendary Beriosova for “her … unhurried perfection of line.”* That precisely describes Ellis in terms of technique, but doesn’t get at the more ineffable qualities of her art. In her onstage presence she reminds me of Shakespeare’s lark, who “at break of day arising/From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate …”
That unearthly quality derives in part from her becoming so at one with the music that she more than fulfills Balanchine’s injunction to make it visible. In her exquisite phrasing she almost transforms herself into an orchestral instrument that elaborates on the sound ascending from the pit. She is its partner.
At one point in the performance Ellis leaned back into the arms of her cavalier, and I actually felt my heart stand still. At first I wondered what was happening to me; then I began to recall the Rodgers and Hart song: “I never lived at all/Until the thrill/ Of that moment when my heart stood still.” Thank you to stager Maria Calegari, ballet master (formerly principal dancer) Larissa Ponomarenko, and assistant artistic director Russell Kaiser, who helped prepare the dancers for this production. Thank you to Balanchine and Tchaikovsky. Thank you, above all, to Ms. Ellis and Maestro McPhee. Every moment of that performance was the product of their superb collaboration.
* (Quoted in Jennifer Dunning, “Svetlana Beriosova, Ballerina With Royal Ballet, Dies at 66,” New York Times, Nov. 13, 1998).