David H. Koch Theater, New York, NY; June 25 & 27, 2014

Jerry Hochman

June 25: The Second Detail, Resonance, Cacti
June 27: Symphony in Three Movements, Afternoon of a Faun, Plan to B, Bella Figura

Kathleen Breen Combes in George Balanchine's 'Symphony in Three Movements'. Photo © Gene Schiavone

Kathleen Breen Combes in George Balanchine’s ‘Symphony in Three Movements’.
Photo © Gene Schiavone

It was your typical Boston/New York rivalry weekend. Cream Pie vs. Cheesecake. Baked Beans vs. French Fries. Red Sox vs. Yankees. And Boston Ballet vs. American Ballet Theatre at Lincoln Center. The winners, at least for the last ‘rivalry’, were those who got to see both companies.

If you haven’t seen Boston Ballet in a long time, as I hadn’t until the company’s New York visit, the final event in its year-long 50th Anniversary celebration, then you’re in for a pleasant surprise whenever you do. Based on these programs, the company has an interesting, impressive, and eclectic repertoire, excellent dancers, and a spirit that’s palpable and exciting.

The program selections by Artistic Director Mikko Nissinen appeared to have been chosen to display the breadth of the company dancers’ abilities. That they did. There were contemporary pieces, an iconic Balanchine ballet; a Nijinsky classic, and a clever comic dance. What there wasn’t was a classical ballet, which raises questions. But that aside, this is a company that clearly wears its youthful vibrancy on its sleeve. It’s a refreshing dynamic – and that I saw nearly half of ABT’s principal dancers at Friday’s performance might be further indication that something quite exciting is happening in Boston.

First things first – it was a pleasure to see Erica Cornejo dancing again on a New York stage. Now a Boston Ballet principal, she was a well-respected ABT soloist, and her departure was one of those that stung.

The programs were a mixed bag, with the second more successful than the first, so I’ll begin there – which allows me to save the best for last – the hit of the visit, “Cacti”.

If you’re going to bring coals to Newcastle, it had better be high quality coal. By leading off its second program with George Balanchine’s “Symphony in Three Movements”, not only in the city where he worked his choreographic magic but in the house that he built, where his company lives, and where the ballet is a regular and much admired constituent of the repertoire, Boston Ballet showed incredible in-your-face chutzpah. That the dancers pulled it off shows how accomplished this company now is.

“Symphony in Three Movements” is one of Balanchine’s masterpieces. It is classical and modern and avant-garde and visually stunning. It’s also a tough piece to do right. While it’s not at New York City Ballet’s level, the performance, which was very well-executed and appropriately fast-paced, did justice to the ballet and is testament to the dancers’ quality. Any differences may be ‘congenital’ – NYCB dancers seem born with Balanchine in their genes; it’s not a style that’s grafted on. This is most evident in the performances by the lead dancers – Lia Cirio and Lasha Khozashvili, Misa Kuranaga; and Jeffrey Cirio; and Rie Ichikawa and Bradley Schlagheck. Despite excellent execution, they lacked the nuances that NYCB’s dancers provide (the closest were Ms. Kuranaga, Mr. Cirio, and Ms. Ichikawa). Nevertheless, it was a very impressive performance by the entire cast.

Boston Ballet in Jiří Kylián's 'Bella Figura'.  Photo © Gene Schiavone

Boston Ballet in Jiří Kylián’s ‘Bella Figura’.
Photo © Gene Schiavone

Any dance choreographed by Jiří Kylián is a visual feast, and “Bella Figura”, which concluded the program, is one of his most exciting pieces. It’s a striking example of Mr. Kylian’s choreographic creativity and compelling stagecraft. But it’s also one of those dances where the whole is less than the sum of its parts. The components are so interesting, however, that the failure of the piece to gel into a coherent whole doesn’t matter.

The ballet signals it’s focus  even before the dance ‘formally’ begins, while the audience is filing into the theater: the curtain is open and the stage is filled with dancers warming up or rehearsing (but obviously this is choreographed). Above these seven dancers are two bodies, one male and one female, naked and encased in separate cocoons hoisted above the stage action, but fully visible to the audience, as if they were overhead ‘framed’ works of art. But “Bella Figura” also presents and celebrates beautifully choreographed figures (not only the dancers – figures like ‘figures’ in figure skating) moving in a suite of ‘framed’ sequences. I particularly liked Mr. Kylian’s use of hands and arms, and his utilization of curtains as an ingredient in the stage action – enrobing dancers, partially hiding them, and compressing the space in which they moved. Of the cast, Ms. Ichikawa was a compelling presence throughout the piece, while Petra Conti also made a particularly vivid impression. But one cautionary comment: as I left the theater, I saw several parents with young children in tow, looking very angry. In the future, it might be prudent to advise potential attendees that this dance contains nudity.

Rumors to the contrary: I was not around to see the 1912 premiere of Nijinsky’s “L’Àpres-midi d’un Faune” with Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes. But in the early 1980s, I was able to see the Joffrey Ballet’s revival of ‘Faune’ in an evening dedicated to Diaghilev. It’s unfair to compare the Boston Ballet cast for the ballet (titled in English as “Afternoon of a Faun”) the second piece on Thursday’s program, with the cast at that performance: Rudolf Nureyev as the Faun, and Charlene Gehm, one of ballet’s most stunningly beautiful ballerinas, as the lead nymph. But Boston Ballet deserves credit for reviving this iconic dance and for its highly effective presentation, one that made it much more than a museum-quality reproduction. Although he couldn’t possibly transmit Mr. Nureyev’s primitive and feral qualities, Mr. Dugaraa made a valiant effort and was a dominating presence. And Ms. Cornejo was a regal lead Nymph, who brought class and controlled but explosive power to her performance.

Whitney Jensen, Jeffrey Cirio and Bo Busby in Jorma Elo's 'Plan to B'.  Photo © Gene Schiavone

Whitney Jensen, Jeffrey Cirio and Bo Busby in Jorma Elo’s ‘Plan to B’.
Photo © Gene Schiavone

Of the dances I’ve seen by Jorma Elo, Boston Ballet’s Resident Choreographer, “Plan to B”, is the best. To contemporary music by Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber, a late 17th Century Bohemian-Austrian composer and violinist with a reputation as one of that era’s finest musicians, the piece features an essentially ballet vocabulary in a contemporary context, and is exhilarating to watch from the first minute. Even when it slows down, it still moves with a modern intense pulse, filled with arching legs and windmill arms. It’s abstract, but it’s not just dancers moving in space; there seems to be an underlying purpose to it – a sense that something will happen, a ‘plan to be’ discovered later. My only criticism is that the ballet ends too abruptly, like a sudden crash. Dusty Button, Whitney Jensen, Bo Busby, Mr. Cirio, John Lam, and Mr. Varga were the electrifying dancers.

Thursday’s program opened with William Forsythe’s “The Second Detail”. Kinetically it’s a thrilling piece to watch (despite the numbing score by Mr. Forsyth’s frequent collaborator Thom Willems), and I appreciated the dancers’ impeccable execution. But there is too much going on choreographically, without any sense that the choreographer is doing more than stuffing as much movement into the piece as possible to demonstrate his facility for making ballet vocabulary look forced and awkward, and for keeping the dancers in constant motion. Although it doesn’t need to have a ‘purpose’, Mr. Forsyth seems to be trying to communicate one – a small sign, like a cemetery footstone, appeared downstage center with the word ‘THE’ on it, which is kicked over at the end of the piece. There has to have been a reason for this, but whatever it is eludes me. Perhaps it’s a reference to there being a better (or at least different) way to have ballet steps performed – his (Mr. Forsythe’s) way, as opposed to ‘THE’ way it’s supposed to be. But if that was its purpose, Balanchine did it better.

“Resonance,” a commissioned piece by former Paris Opera Ballet étoile Jose Martinez, premiered earlier this year. It has an emotional, romantic, lyrical tone (befitting the Franz Lizst music), with a sense of mirror images and choreographic echoes (for example, dancers in one costume style appear to switch costumes with those initially dressed in another; a dancer slowly enters as the piece begins, thinking about something, and at the end of the piece, after costumes are changed, exits the same way), but this is more gimmicky than substantive and isn’t enough to carry the piece. It was well performed by lead dancers Alejandro Virelles (to join English National Ballet this summer as a principal), Ms. Cirio, Ms. Button, and Mr. Khozashvilli, and a sixteen dancer corps.

Boston Ballet in Alexander Ekman’s 'Cacti'. Photo © Rosalie O’Connor.

Boston Ballet in Alexander Ekman’s ‘Cacti’.
Photo © Rosalie O’Connor.

“Cacti”, the final dance on the first program, is a hoot – and because it doesn’t aspire to being more than a thoroughly entertaining hoot, was the success of the visit. I can’t remember when I’ve laughed so much at a dance performance – not because it’s belly-laugh funny, but because it’s so clever, and was so brilliantly executed by Boston Ballet’s dancers.

If you’ve ever wondered what the Olympic Games opening ceremony might look like if the games were held in, say, Freedonia (from “Duck Soup”), see “Cacti”. As the curtain opens, a quartet of musicians is spread across the stage, downstage, playing the first section’s accompanying music (assembled, improvised, and composed by committee, and which includes music by Haydn, Beethoven, Mahler, and American musician Andy Stein). Behind them are what look like platforms. As the stage brightens, you see dancers lying flat on the platforms. The dancers gradually rise, and start “playing” music on the platforms, as if they were putting on a show of synchronized drumming – the kind of galvanizing percussion that marked the opening ceremony of the Olympic games in Beijing. But very quickly the action takes a different turn – the dancers start banging on anything – themselves, each other – whatever they can reach, making ‘music’ to accompany, and enhance, the music being played by the musicians (who by this point have moved to positions behind the platforms). And then you realize, with the help of a disembodied narrated ‘voice-over’, that the point of “Cacti” is that there is no point – except maybe to show that not having a point is the point. And when you stop trying to figure out what’s going on, you can figure out what’s going on. Then, in the ballet’s second of three parts (the third is a sort of wrap-up), you see a couple dancing to a pre-recorded ‘concurrent’ conversation of their in-performance thoughts, a feat that is the equivalent of a circus trapeze act without a net.

Boston Ballet in Alexander Ekman’s 'Cacti'.  Photo © Rosalie O’Connor.

Boston Ballet and cacti in ‘Cacti’.
Photo © Rosalie O’Connor.

This is not a dry, ‘sophisticated’ ballet comedy such as Jerome Robbins’ “The Concert”, or, going back a bit, Jules Perrot’s “Pas de Quatre”. And it’s not the Trocks. The brainchild of Swedish choreographer Alexander Ekman, “Cacti” tickles your brain as well as your eyes and ears. Explaining it, or even describing it, would spoil it – assuming I could explain it. Ultimately, “Cacti” is a brilliant hodgepodge of intelligent and zany choreography executed with extraordinary skill, and with the razor sharp timing and pinpoint precision of a first rate comedy act. Or a Marx brother. And you see cacti (with razor sharp, pinpoint needles). Lots of cacti.

While I spend a little quiet time pondering the hidden meaning of “Cacti”, I’ll end, if I can come to an end, if it ever truly ends (you had to be there…), with this observation: during Boston Ballet’s five day engagement, across the plaza at Lincoln Center ABT was performing “Swan Lake”. Both pieces feature exquisite artistry. “Swan Lake” is a classic, “Cacti” isn’t. But “Cacti” has refined lunacy – a quality that “Swan Lake” lacks. If the situation presents itself again, deciding which performance to attend, if you could only attend only one, would be a close call. But ponder this: why watch a gaggle of swans when you could cuddle with cacti?