Boston Opera House, Boston, MA; May 14 and 15, 2014

Carla DeFord

Brett Fukuda and Andres Garcia in Scotch Symphony  Photo © Gene Schiavone

Brett Fukuda and Andres Garcia in Scotch Symphony
Photo © Gene Schiavone

“Next Generation” is a showcase of Boston Ballet School trainees and pre-professional students as well as members of Boston Ballet II (BB II), the apprentice company.  Featuring live music by the New England Conservatory (NEC) Youth Philharmonic and College Orchestras, the annual show is now in its fifth year.

It was a treat to hear the orchestras, which were under the direction of Boston Ballet Orchestra (BBO) principal conductor, Jonathan McPhee.  The program listed the first ensemble as the “New England Conservatory Youth Philharmonic Ballet Orchestra,” which led me to believe that NEC might actually have a ballet-orchestra training program.  My first reaction was – how exciting!   Maybe NEC will train not only young musicians to play in, but also conductors to lead, ballet orchestras.  Could this mean a major change in the relationship of classical music to dance?

No such luck; when I questioned a member of the Boston Ballet (BB) artistic staff, I was told that the NEC Youth Philharmonic Orchestra had simply been renamed in honor of this event.  Oh well, if it’s not the real turtle soup, at least it’s not merely the mock.  The collaboration of NEC and BB is a wonderful thing, by anybody’s standards, and who knows what might happen in the future?

Be that as it may, on this evening the orchestras did a great job.  I especially loved hearing the Mendelssohn Symphony No. 3 in A minor, op. 56 (the “Scottish”), which was played with all the drama one could hope for.  Considering that the musicians were interacting with complicated choreography, including solos that required them to react to subtle adjustments in tempo and phrasing, I was tremendously impressed.  All credit to Maestro McPhee, who obviously helped the ensemble attain the flexibility it needed.  Bravo to all concerned.

When I attend a performance like “Next Generation,” I’m looking for the stars of tomorrow, and I found a few.  First was Zion Harris of the pre-professional program.  My jaw dropped when I saw him onstage.  He has great authority and presence in addition to an amazing ability to get into the air.  He reminded me of Carlos Acosta; one can only hope he will move through the ranks and eventually join the company.

In the character dance for one of the women’s pre-professional ensembles, performed to the “Dance russe” from “Swan Lake,” Chelsea Perry was the one to watch.  She perfectly captured the infinite melancholy of the slow sections and the exuberance of the fast ones.  The program listed the dance as presented by BB School faculty member Alla Nikitina, whom I remember watching several years ago as she memorably coached the BB corps in a folk dance in “Romeo and Juliet.”  Perry, along with the other dancers in the group, did her proud.

Another stand-out was Marcus Romeo of BB II in “Trazom” (“Mozart” spelled backwards, which is how the composer signed his letters to his sister), choreographed by BB principal dancer Yury Yanowsky.  I’ve seen Romeo before as one of the guests in the “Nutcracker” party scene and in the corps of “Coppelia.”  I find that whenever he’s in an ensemble, my eyes go to him.  He has intensity and precision allied with unusual acting ability.  I love it when a dancer shows you not only what the steps are but what they mean, and he does that consistently.

“Trazom” was an enjoyable comic piece.  The main joke was a finger-wagging, hip-shaking move that recalled the Andrews sisters dancing to “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.”   Romeo let you know exactly where that move came from and had great fun doing it.  The music, excerpts from three Mozart horn concertos, was provided by the NEC College Orchestra, with solos by the impeccable BBO principal horn player, Robert Marlatt.

Next was Balanchine’s “Scotch Symphony,” danced to the Mendelssohn mentioned above, with Brett Fukuda of BB II as lead ballerina.  Fukuda clearly has a great career ahead of her.  I was particularly impressed with her dévelopés.  They reminded me of a story Maina Gielgud told me about watching Beriosova do a dévelopé so beautiful that it brought Gielgud to tears.  Fukuda’s phrasing throughout was interesting and beautifully realized.  Although her solos must have presented challenges for the orchestra, there was great synergy between stage and pit.

Boston Ballet in "Etudes" Photo © Rosalie O'Connor

Boston Ballet in “Etudes”
Photo © Rosalie O’Connor

On May 15 I saw quite a different program.  “Pricked” was a triple bill that consisted of “Études” by Harald Lander, “D.M.J. 1953-1977” by Petr Zuska, and “Cacti” by Alexander Ekman.  Assistant BBO conductor Geneviève Leclair was at the podium; and I particularly enjoyed hearing the Largo from Dvořák’s “New World” Symphony in “D.M.J.”

I would say the evening belonged to two dancers: soloist Whitney Jensen in Études and corps member Roddy Doble in “D.M.J.”  Jensen as the lead ballerina in Études was simply spectacular.  The role features two pas de deux: a classical and a romantic (the change from plate-style to calf-length tutu leaving no doubt as to Lander’s intentions).  As good as the classical pas de deux was, it’s the romantic one that haunts me.  Those undulating arms, the way she used her head and neck, it all added up to complete command of the style.  What a Giselle she will make.  I can’t wait to see it.

Roddy Doble is an ABT transplant who joined BB in 2013.  The first time I saw him was last October when he was one of those wild and crazy American Indian dancers in “La Bayadére.”  It didn’t take me long to figure out that he had something special.  His lines were so precise and expressive, and he clearly loved being onstage.  As the male lead in “D.M.J.,” Doble took full advantage of the opportunity to prove himself a compelling actor.  He immediately established the character of the bereaved lover, and one felt his anguish throughout the performance.

As for “D.M.J.” itself, I found the choreography repetitive, with too much rolling around on the floor and many similar-looking lifts.  The red roses as symbols of dead women was a cliché and, being fake roses, when they were strewn about the stage, they clattered like broken dishes.  The black platforms of the set (representing grave stones?) were also a problem; one of them nearly fell over with principal dancer Ashley Ellis on it, and Doble had to use all his strength to steady the thing.  It was quite a distraction, but Doble came to the rescue and then carried on without skipping a beat.  He has superb technique, real charisma, and acting chops.  What more could one ask for?  Would that he might be cast as Prince Siegfried next fall.  If he is, you can be sure that, in the words of the Four Tops, I’ll be there.

As for Ashley Ellis as Doble’s love interest, I thought the role did not do her justice.  She is an extraordinary classical dancer with an intensity that nearly burns up the stage.  In this piece she was confined to modern technique, with lots of Graham-like contractions, and lifts in which she was either slung over Doble’s shoulders or reaching forward with legs bent and feet flexed.  It just seemed like a waste of her best stuff.

What to say about “Cacti”?  I guess it just wasn’t my taste.  I liked the pricking of pretentiousness in the opening sequence.  First we heard a voice-over bloviating about dance theory.  This reminded me of the scene in “Annie Hall” in which Woody Allen has Marshall McLuhan appear in person to rebut the intellectual posturings of a blowhard Allen encounters while waiting in line for a movie.  But what does Ekman counter the pretension with?  The voice-over talked about primitive movement versus refinement, so one expected that theme to be carried forward.  Cue the onstage string quartet, playing riffs on the Presto from Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden,” which is the epitome of refinement.  The music was set against a lot of movement that wasn’t really primitive nor did I find it particularly funny.  By the time the entire company was standing on platforms and running in place for what seemed like minutes on end, I was ready to pack it in.

I liked the second part of the piece better, with its couple rehearsing a dance and commenting on their relationship.  When a stuffed (dead?) cat dropped out of the fly space and when the dancers carried in the (mostly phallic) cacti to a voice-over commenting on their sexual symbolism, however, the choreographer pretty much lost me.

At the end of “Hannah and Her Sisters” Woody Allen, that hater of all things pretentious finds salvation in the Marx brothers’ zaniness, but where’s the consolation in a prickly plant?  If Schubert’s dance of death is too refined for Ekman, what does he offer in its place?  You got me there.