Dance Review: Boston Ballet — A Respectable “Lady of the Camellias”

What I didn’t see opening night was passion. The characters, all living on the edge of respectability, are comfortable in their own world, but as individuals most of them don’t assert themselves.

Lady of the Camellias, choreographed by Val Caniparoli, music by Chopin. Staged by the Boston Ballet at the Boston Opera House, Boston, MA through March 8.

Kathleen Breen Combes and Yury Yanowsky of Boston Ballet in Val Caniparoli's "Lady of the Camellias." Photo: Gene Schiavone

Kathleen Breen Combes and Yury Yanowsky of Boston Ballet in Val Caniparoli’s “Lady of the Camellias.” Photo: Gene Schiavone

By Marcia B. Siegel

Lady of the Camellias aims to invest an old-fashioned formula with a modern energy. When you think about the evening-length story ballet, you might imagine those lush, lumbering sagas that showcase star dancers, with local context provided by dancing courtiers and peasants, servants, supernatural characters, and elaborate scenic effects. Swan Lake or Sleeping Beauty for instance. Lady of the Camellias is not like that. Val Caniparoli’s work, revived this week by Boston Ballet, seems curiously restrained for a story about the Paris demi-monde in the early 19th century, but it seems a decent compromise. An intimate ballet centered on one fatal love affair, with featured roles for many dancers, it’s based on the well-known Alexandre Dumas tale. Marguerite, a consumptive courtesan, gives up her aristocratic lover and loses her rich paramour as well, in a duel between the two rivals. Unlike most story-ballets, Lady of the Camellias is essentially all dancing.

Choreographed in 1994 for Ballet Florida and staged since by many other companies including Boston (2004), the work looks clean and classical, but seldom louche. What’s modern about this production is that it’s conceived on a small scale despite its opera-house proportions. It uses a spare décor and a modest Chopin score of selections that range from familiar orchestral teasers to a vocal solo—a tenor (Rockland Osgood) and a soprano (Alexandra Whitfield), with piano acompaniment, deliver the same song at different times. Instead of surging crowds or flirting friends ad libbing in the background, Lady of the Camellias is populated by well-behaved dancers and organized groups. Caniparoli choreographed some inventive and often narratively logical arrangements for keeping the stage in motion without monotony or constricting formalism.

We understand this is a closed society, because of the precision group work and the egalitarian way people show off at the parties, erupting out of the music into leaps and pirouettes and minutely timed explosions of enjoyment. Boston Ballet now has a fine cadre of male dancers, and the choreography shows them off in teams and matched bravura numbers. Particularly noticeable opening night were Bradley Schlagheck, Jeffrey Cirio, Paulo Arrais, and a pair of nameless suitors for Marguerite’s affections, Paul Craig and Ricardo Santos.

There are frisky chain dances at the second-act garden party, and divertissements that arise out of the dramatic situation. These gatherings provoke duets, many of them with the partners rushing apart or together and the men sweeping the women off their feet into high lifts. At the first-act party, the champagne glasses get filled and the drinkers get rowdier, the dancing trickier. In a pas de cinq, the participants wheel shoulder to shoulder, then break apart into smaller units that recur like snapshots later on in the action.

Even though the many pas de deux are punctuated with twisty, risky maneuvers, the dancers work with a classical body alignment. The woman will be all stretched out as she’s being hefted horizontally overhead or upside down by her partner, or she might unfold her legs into a beautiful arabesque as he tips her into a nosedive. Unlike the snaky entanglements of contemporary dance, these duets suggest metaphor, ideal images, a balletic transcendence of grubby desires. So when Armand (Yury Yanowsky) carries Marguerite (Kathleen Breen Combes), curled up like a child with her feet nicely pointed, toward the bed at the end of their long, ecstatic pas de deux, the seduction is sweet, not triumphant or predatory.

Each of the acts has a different setting: first, Marguerite’s drawing room, then a garden party, a glittering reception, and finally the heroine’s bedroom. The sets are sketchy but informative (designed by David Gano and Robert Glay de La Rose), with atmospheric lighting by John Cuff. Chandeliers and a few ornate panels suggest a rich apartment, swings and French windows with billowing curtains waft you into a garden party, a tipped-over mirror and a pile of trunks tell you Marguerite is moving out of the love nest she shared with the Baron.

What’s curious about this production is how much important detail there is, and how hard it is to tell just how it figures in the action on a big stage. Letters get written, money is thrown around. I couldn’t see what Armand scooped off Marguerite’s gown in their first scene, not even after he sniffed it rapturously. (It was, of course, the flower that gave Camille her nickname.) At the garden party the men toss black handballs to each other in a game with no discernable rules except choreographic ones. And then, why would Armand’s father (Pavel Gurevich), arriving to demand that Marguerite give him up, dance a duet with her in which he lifts and turns her much like a romantic partner?

What I didn’t see opening night was passion. The characters, all living on the edge of respectability, are comfortable in their own world, but as individuals most of them don’t assert themselves. Another couple, Jeffrey Cirio and Misa Kuranaga, didn’t have distinct personalities except for their fine dancing. Marguerite’s paramour, the Baron (Bo Busby), is stuffy and stiff-necked, but rich. Lia Cirio alone comes on strong, as a jealous friend of Marguerite. Later Cirio gloats because she’s taken over Armand, the reluctantly dismissed lover. Yanowsky snarls during their third-act duet, but with Marguerite he merely looks awestruck. Breen Combes in the title role danced wonderfully but didn’t convey the depth of an ambitious woman who has to live outside of respectability and is fatally stricken with TB. Melanie Atkins, once a principal dancer who’s now children’s balletmistress for the company, made a mostly mime appearance as Prudence, who’s graduated from courtesan to the milliner’s trade but still acts as haughty as a madam.

The company offered little information to the audience besides a one-page listing of the cast and production credits. A precis of musical sources, a synopsis of plot lines, a reference to the where and when of the scenes, and/or information on who danced which numbers, might have enhanced our appreciation.

Internationally known writer, lecturer, and teacher Marcia B. Siegel covered dance for 16 years at the Boston Phoenix. She is a Contributing Editor for the Hudson Review. The fourth collection of Siegel’s reviews and essays, Mirrors and Scrims–The Life and Afterlife of Ballet, won the 2010 Selma Jeanne Cohen prize from the American Society for Aesthetics. Her other books include studies of Twyla Tharp, Doris Humphrey, and American choreography. From 1983-1996 Siegel was a member of the resident faculty of the Department of Performance Studies, Tisch School of the Arts, New York University

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