May 122014

Carrying cacti around the stage in boxes and placing them on their heads and in predictably suggestive positions, the Boston Ballet dancers looked like they were having a blast

Boston Ballet: Pricked at the Opera House, Boston, through May 18.

By Debra Cash

Etudes is often described as a staging of ballet class exercises, yet it also serves as choreographer Harald Lander’s love letter to his native Denmark, from its references to Bournvonville’s La Sylphide through the silhouetted ballerinas that evoke Hans Christian Andersen’s papercuts.

Choreographed in 1948, Etudes challenges the assertion that dancers of decades ago didn’t have the refined ballet technique we now take for granted. Although it’s true that even nonprofessionals today are leaner, faster, and have much higher extensions, it takes powerhouse technicians to master complicated Danish footwork. Starting with a simple grand plie of welcome, and spotlighting the shins of row of dancers standing at the barre performing rondes de jambes en l’air like a line of cooks whisking up a meringue, Etudes progresses inexorably towards huge leaps.The bombastic structure goes from false ending to false ending, and sidesteps the ironic dissonance in Knudage Riisager’s orchestration of Czerny tunes that have often accompanied ballet lessons.

Boston Ballet used to present Etudes regularly. This was in part because Bruce Marks, who was the company’s director between 1985 and 1997, had a complicated, extended family connection to the choreographer. Danish ballerina Toni (Petersen) Lander had married and divorced Lander, and then married and divorced Marks before her death at the age of 54.

I caught the second cast of this year’s iteration and it didn’t give me faith in the depth of the company’s bench. Petra Conti, the Italian ballerina who joined BB in 2013, has long, articulate feet, but was stilted and seemed unable to submit to the required turn of her shoulders. Eris Nezha and Lasha Khozashvili (alternating with the first-night pair of Boston Ballet’s leaping-est and turning-est men, Jeffrey Cirio and John Lam) were simply sloppy, with Khozashvili hauling himself through his variations. Still, there was a lovely thrill to the moment when Nezha and the six ladies surrounding him synchronized their series of fouette turns. I also was intrigued by the gorgeous carriage and clean technique of one young dancer who stood out from the corps de ballet, Brazilian dancer Ricardo Santos. Keep an eye out.

Pricked‘s other two pieces were American premiers. Young choreographer Petr Zuska, artistic director of The National Theatre in Prague had been described as a disciple of his countryman Jiří Kylián, but only half of D.M.J 1953-1977 looks like Kylian. The other half looks like Antony Tudor.

Let me explain. A pensive young man (I saw Sabi Varga) places a red rose on a block that could be a chopping block or a stump. Unfurling behind him is a tableaux of men sitting on blocks holding the hands of female partners who turn their backs as if to flee. As Varga, a much underused BB soloist with the cheekbones of Cillian Murphy, uncoils on the floor in a modern dance solo of longing, he is joined by Kathleen Breen Combes. Even in a lift, they don’t connect, as if they can’t see each other. They lean and climb on boxes that resemble a cemetery of jumbled tombstones, and with Tudor-like psychologizing, Breen Combes wraps herself around Varga’s naked torso like a spool of beautiful ribbons. The ensemble’s motion amplifies the couple’s emotional extremes. It reproduces the feeling you sometimes have after a bad breakup when everyone on the street reminds you of your ex.

Boston Ballet "Pricked." Photo by Rob Ribera.

Lia Cirio and Isaac Akiba in Boston Ballet’s “Cacti.” Photo by Rob Ribera.

Breen Combes has exchanged her pointe shoes for bare feet –and wears a nude body stocking — in D.M.J’s final, Kylianesque section, curled against what looks like a sauna bench. Surprise! A hand with a rose pops up behind her like a sock puppet. Varga, emerging from his hiding place with an armful of roses, drops them like Albrecht at Giselle’s grave, and ultimately a rose rises in the air like a crucifix. Apparently, Zuska was inspired to create this work by noticing the grave of someone who died young. Kylian-lovers will recognize the overwrought, high concept visual style.

Alexander Ekman puts a string quartet playing Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden,” onstage among the dancers of Cacti, another work where blocks have a featured role. The androgynous dancers, wearing black knickers and head-rags, slap their faces and chests and syncopate through a sequence of vigorous body percussion that could have been choreographed by Barak Marshall or the Pacific Islander troupe Black Grace. A academic-sounding voiceover that describes the dancers as “members of a human orchestra” is meant to be pretentious and it is, but eventually the irony turns to energy. Standing on blank white tiles like the inhabitants of small, floating islands, the dancers emerge into vital duet and solo phrases each no more than 8 bars long. Dusty Button and Paul Craig, pulling black track jackets over their nude leotard tops, illustrate a colloquial “you do this, now I’ll do that” text, a technique that been standard issue since the 1960s but which the Boston Ballet audience responded to as if it were a delightful innovation. Carrying cacti around the stage in boxes and placing them on their heads and in predictably suggestive positions, the dancers looked like they were having a blast.

Debra Cash has reported, taught and lectured on dance, performing arts, design and cultural policy for print, broadcast and internet media. She regularly presents pre-concert talks, writes program notes and moderates events sponsored by World Music/CRASHarts and cultural venues throughout New England. A former Boston Globe and WBUR dance critic, she is a two-time winner of the Creative Arts Award for poetry from the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute and will return to the 2014 Bates Dance Festival as Scholar in Residence.

c 2014 Debra Cash


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