Boston Ballet is to be welcomed; London may be awash with dance this summer, but the company’s first visit to London in 30 years is good news indeed. Under Director Mikko Nissinen, it has hauled itself up the rankings from a good-to-middling US ballet troupe to something rather more high-profile. The dancers are engaged and, above all, fast – they move with unfettered athleticism, and relish the challenges of speed and intricate virtuosity. The corps de ballet
is overwhelmingly home-grown whereas at principal level, as in almost any ballet company which claims a world profile, dancers are drawn from further afield – significantly South America and the Far East.
For its first programme Nissinen has consciously sought to place his troupe within the great twentieth century traditions of ballet – a totemic work of the Ballets Russes by Nijinsky and two by the Russo-American master George Balanchine, and he has placed a short piece by Jorma Elo alongside these legendary names, a clear statement of belief that in Elo, he and his company, have a master working in their midst. Nijinsky’s L’Après-midi d’un faune exists more or less as it was created 101 years ago, and still gives an insight into the brilliant choreographic mind of Nijinsky which was to be clouded soon after by insanity.
This is a careful staging by the French ex-dancer Ghislaine Thesmar, resplendent in Bakst’s original designs for the back-cloth and costumes; movement-wise the Nymphs moved with reverential care, afraid almost to break what seems perhaps to them as a fragile museum-piece. It is nothing of the sort, and ‘faune’ benefits from a good dose of heavy sexuality, a sexuality which so famously shocked the audience at the work’s 1912 premiere. Lorna Feijóo was a heavy-lidded Lead Nymph, submitting easily enough to the faun’s unsubtle ruttings and there was much to admire in Altan Dugaraa even if his silhouette is a little too slender to evoke Nijinsky’s heavy-thighed original. He worked hard to deliver the iconic poses, laughed silently in animal delight and convincingly sniffed and cowed the Nymph, shuddering unmistakably in climax on her scarf in the closing moments. And yet, he missed some of the baseness of instinct which characterises Nijinsky’s radical evocation of ancient, pagan Greece. Perhaps they all do.
Elo’s Plan to B, his 2004 debut work with Boston Ballet, has delighted audiences since. It is a high-octane statement of 21st-century intent, evocative of Elo’s spiritual master Jiří Kylián, but more classically-based in dance terms. Set to a recording of music by Heinrich Biber, it contrasts his baroque sound world with visuals of powered movement – endless spins, massive leaps, blurringly-fast ports de bras
. It emerges as a synthesis of dance notables of the past thirty years – William Forsythe looms large, Kylián, Ek and Duato, too. The dancers cannot be faulted, folding and unfolding themselves into every contortion asked of them with unblinking commitment, every ounce of energy expended. Whitney Jensen blazed in a flurry of tight spins and Lia Cirio flexed impressively, Jeffrey Cirio hurling himself into huge leaps. A dark stage with a panel of light fixed at an rakish angle provide the setting, but no meaning comes across, no purpose to the endeavour; dance does not have to ‘mean’ anything but it always needs to have a purpose, a reason for existing. Elo’s construct seems to lack such a motivation, despite his avowed intention to “reflect his personal experience with career transitions”. Impressive calisthenics then, but little more.
A brace of Balanchine whets the balletomane’s appetite, and Nissenen cleverly book-ends this first evening with highly contrasted works: the first the choreographer’s first work on American soil – the 1934 Serenade – the second his hip visualisation of Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements for the New York 1972 Stravinsky Festival. Serenade stands as one of the supreme achievements of twentieth century ballet, the choreographer’s blueprint in many ways for what American ballet, under his tutelage, was to become. There are many ways of dancing this work, ranging from the dreamily lyrical to the jaggedly dynamic. Certainly, Boston places itself at the fast-and-furious end of that spectrum, about as far away from the flabbiness favoured by London’s Royal Ballet in recent outings. Indeed, I cannot recall a faster musical performance of Tchaikovsky’s score (the strings of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra smooth and warm under Jonathan McPhee) which led, inevitably, to a performance with a decidedly rapid pulse, the emphasis on movement rather than pose, brio rather than beauty. John Cuff’s lighting (as in other works) made for a delightful stage picture, the ballet beginning and ending bathed in bright moonlight. Misa Kuranaga spun and zipped her way through her role, balances exultant, she, more than anyone else, playing with the music with intelligent rubato
. Elsewhere, musicality was somewhat four-square, some dancers ever anticipating the beat and edging ahead, something that leant a hurried, impatient quality to their movement; arms were solidly placed rather than floated. However, Balanchine’s final section with its evocation of narrative (Lia Cirio’s part is often referred to as the Dark Angel) emerges in this company’s performance as clear and emphatic, but where some find rapture, ecstasy and deep lyricism, the headlong musical rush means that Boston’s dancers do not.
Symphony in Three Movements is a musical construct, literally assembled from items from the cutting room floor as Stravinsky re-used wartime film compositions to assemble this work. Balanchine responds with customary intelligence to the score, suffusing this work with the spirit of modernity and a decidedly American modernity at that. As he did in many of his ballets, he here mixed jazz and jitterbug moves, vernacular movement (speed walking, jogging) with classical dance to make a quirky and decidedly up-to-date visualisation of the music, marshalling large forces (36 dancers) in dizzying combinations, a true master of the stage showing off just a little bit by filling it with what seem like contrasting and jarring movements, the apparent chaos nothing of the sort. The central section is devoted to an orientally-infused pas de deux
, slow, deliberate movements of interlocking arms and hands, palms often flat (as in Nijinsky’s ‘faune’), an opaque lyricism here deftly evoked by Kathleen Breen Combes and Paulo Arrais. In the two outer movements, the dancers go hell for leather – Misa Kurnga and Jeffrey Cirio in the first attempting to out-jump each other. The assembled forces lack the final dusting of leggy precision, the corps de ballet
, as in Serenade, struggling to form straight lines. The aesthetic is entirely 1970s – women in ponytails and leotards, wonderwomen all; interestingly, Balanchine explores the bisection of faces and bodies by the straight lines of limbs, a clear example of that period’s fascination in visual art with off-colour geometry, and the work ends with the assembled cast motionless, arms outstretched, either in the vertical or the horizontal. A curious, perplexing but undoubtedly great work.
It was a pleasure to hear the RPO play three contrasting scores so very well – the high quality was most welcome in a ballet performance in London.