Chroma, Episodes, Black Cake

Boston Opera House, Boston, MA; March 28, 2015

Carla DeFord

Lia Cirio and Paulo Arrais in George Balanchine's Episodes.  Photo © Rosalie O'Connor

Lia Cirio and Paulo Arrais in George Balanchine’s Episodes.
Photo © Rosalie O’Connor

Although Chroma by Wayne McGregor certainly contains interesting choreography, its emotional content is rather opaque. Two of the sections included Ashley Ellis, however, who has become such a good actress that she is able to project meaning with clarity. In the first section, she was clearly angry, pushing and shoving her partner in funny but not frivolous ways. When she returned later, she seemed to be thinking about freedom – of movement to be sure, but also perhaps of feeling. Beyond that, one section for men seems to be a riff on the Jets in West Side Story, and another for the women evokes the three graces.

The music, by Joby Talbot and Jack White, was under the direction of principal conductor Jonathan McPhee. It involves not just the orchestra in the pit, but instruments placed in four other positions in the front of the auditorium, so it must have been a challenge to conduct. I wouldn’t describe the music as enjoyable, however; it is clearly meant to be disturbing, and it is. In the finale, the sound becomes frenzied. The dancers, in their flesh-colored costumes, move ever faster, and the whole thing begins to resemble a wild post-apocalyptic square dance.

Balanchine’s Episodes is in four sections with music from the orchestral works of Anton von Webern. The penultimate section, Concerto, Opus 24, featured Lia Cirio and Paulo Arrais. I have found Cirio to be compelling in modern repertoire before, and this was another revelation. Her special gift is to be able to take the spikiest choreography and give it fluidity. Other dancers in the company manage to hit positions, one after another, but with her the entire work becomes a single statement. Arrais not only matched her organic phrasing, but also supported her beautifully. The quality of their partnership made me think of Wendy Whalen and Damian Smith in After the Rain, a piece I saw in 2010 at the Boston Ballet Night of Stars and never forgot.

Symphony, Opus 21 included Patrick Yocum in the corps, and he’s getting to be one of my favorite dancers. He’s got the kind of presence, speed, and concentration that enhance every part he appears in. Recently, when he’s in a line of dancers, my eyes go to him.

Boston Ballet in Hans van Manen's Black Cake.  Photo © Rosalie O'Connor

Boston Ballet in Hans van Manen’s Black Cake.
Photo © Rosalie O’Connor

In Ricercata in Six Voices from Bach’s “Musical Offering, Ellis reappeared, and it was lovely to see her wondrous technique put in the service of neoclassical repertoire. She gave the Balanchine choreography a softness and roundedness that underscored the generally happy tenor of the piece.

Hans van Manen’s Black Cake featured an astounding performance by Sabi Varga as the lead male dancer. Varga’s acting is so spectacularly natural and unforced that I began to think of him as the company’s Marlon Brando. Elaine Stritch once said that Brando’s “going to class to learn the Method was like sending a tiger to jungle school.” Varga is another cat for whom jungle school would be superfluous; he seems to be completely self-educated.

The first part of Black Cake consists mostly of a very funny tango. Varga’s posture, his flexible back, the snap of his head, the way he tucks in his chin when looking at his partner like a matador addressing a bull, his breaking of the fourth wall to communicate with the audience – it was all precise and hilarious. Then the cast was served champagne, and everyone became tipsy. I don’t know how it’s possible, but at that point Varga got even better. His facial expressions (simultaneous confidence and utter perplexity) and body language (perfect rectitude combined with an inability to remain quite perpendicular) were so relaxed and yet perfectly calibrated that he reminded me of Baryshnikov in Vestris. Kathleen Breen Combes as his partner was also delightful in the tango and ensuing inebriation, but the piece belonged to Varga. Bravo.

The music for Black Cake, under the baton of Geneviève Leclair, added to the fun. I’ll never hear the familiar third movement of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 or the Méditation from Massenet’s Thaïs the same way again.