My overall impression of the ballet was of earnest pretension.
Third Symphony of Gustav Mahler: A Ballet by John Neumeier, performed by Boston Ballet at Boston Opera House, Boston, MA, through November 1.
By Marcia B. Siegel
No European composer extended the symphonic form more extravagantly than Gustav Mahler. Indeed, some scholars think he finished it off, while he was propelling it into the modern age. With his Third, Mahler surpassed even himself, in a 90-minute effusion of gorgeous sound meant to encompass the landscape, animals, flora, Greek deities, love, loss, and redemption. On Thursday night, Boston Ballet opened its season with John Neumeier’s equally grandiose yet sparing 1975 ballet of the same name. In some ways, the evening lived up to its reputation, but in others, it was surprising.
Most ballets set to such a big score use recorded music. That was the case when Neumeier’s Hamburg Ballet performed it at Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1983. But here, conductor Jonathan McPhee courageously adapted the massive orchestra for the Opera House pit, arranging room for the singers (alto Sarah Pelletier and the New World Chorale), with the prominent brass ensemble seated higher up in the pit stage right. At one point I thought I heard fanfares somewhere out in the house.
The ballet opened with a 30-man first movement (“Yesterday”) that showed off their muscles in barechested calisthenics. Led by Lasha Kozashvili as a sort of Everyman, they were first sprawled on the floor under blacklight, in decorative but dehumanized sculpted positions. The huge contingent of male pulchritude unfolded into more posing and tricky duets. With brassy exclamations and snare drums, Mahler herded them into militaristic ranks, perhaps anticipating Hitler’s Third Reich if not the proto-Nazi youth movement that was getting going at the end of the 19th century. Finally the men swarmed into a human pyramid and fell back as a human flower, with one of them rising in the center. This recalled arty phallic climaxes in other 1970s ballets by choreographers like Maurice Béjart and Glen Tetley.
After the strenuous beginning, the evening continued into more danceable territory. The pastel second movement, “Summer,” was set to a lively, minuet-based tune and featured two couples (Dusty Button and Eris Nezha, Lia Cirio and Paul Craig), with a small female corps against a blue background. The group of women, when I snatched moments to look at them, were complimenting the duos in an asymmetrical counterpoint.
“Autumn” brought five couples and a trio, joined by another 12 couples. All the partnering in the ballet was tricky. Men swung the women over their backs and around their thighs, often upside down. The women, supported and unsupported, balanced on pointe or twisted away from a standing foot. Men ran across the space carrying women high in the air in precarious positions.
“Night” was first performed in 1974 as a separate ballet in honor of choreographer John Cranko of Stuttgart Ballet, who had died suddenly and was mourned by the dance world. It began with a very long silence. Three figures (Anaïs Chalendard, Paulo Arrias, and Lasha Kozashvili) simply walk and link together in different ways. The men twine in a duet as Chalendard stands far upstage facing away from the audience. “O Mensch …” sings Pelletier, quoting Nietzsche: the joy of death is deeper than pain.
After that, Erica Cornejo (the Angel) dances an extraordinary solo, changing moods and directions with the music. All by herself, she gave momentum and even levity to the ponderous proceedings, in which people are always withdrawing into pensive poses or halting their action to freeze dramatically. Khozashvili wanders through their groupings and around the edges. He stands for ages gazing at the action, or, lying down, he’s possibly dreaming it.
The whole thing ends with all 60-plus dancers in couples, effecting grand tableaux, and at last leaving Khozashvili alone. He turns away upstage and seems defeated, but Cornejo appears from the audience. As she walks slowly across the forestage and off, he seems to know she’s there. He’s twisting around to reach for her with both arms when the lights go down and the curtain falls.
Neumeier designed the costumes (strapless tunics and body suits for the women, tights with bare chests for the men) in tasteful colors appropriate for each movement of the music. Pastel peach, yellow and blue for Summer, orange and brown shades for Autumn, red for the Angel, white for the rest of the population, nude for Khozashvili.
I think you were supposed to see everyone as anonymous; you almost had to in a dance of this scale, but the solo parts brought out qualities in the dancers that I hadn’t seen before: a softness in Lia Cirio’s big personality, Seo Hye Han’s playfulness, the pliability of all the women in the lifts, and especially quick, springy, joyous Erica Cornejo as the Angel. At times I thought Khozashvili seemed exhausted, but then, he had to be on stage most of the time, maintaining some kind of presence without much to do.
My overall impression of the ballet was of earnest pretension. After the first movement I liked it better. There was more dancing, but Neumeier kept overriding it, in the soulful wanderings of Khozashvili, the suspenseful passages without music, and the way the dancers had to hold still for long periods of time in difficult poses. All this had to be signaling Big Ideas, but instead I was wondering why I wasn’t having any profound thoughts, and wishing Mahler had curbed his prolixity.
I loved Mahler’s music when it accompanied other memorable ballets: Antony Tudor’s Dark Elegies (the Kindertotenlieder), Eliot Feld’s At Midnight (the Rückert Songs), Pauline Koner’s The Farewell (Das Lied von der Erde). I also enjoyed Mahler when it didn’t accompany any dancing. I even sang the Second Symphony (Resurrection) once in a huge chorus, with Jessye Norman, Leonard Bernstein, and the New York Philharmonic in Avery Fisher Hall. In Boston, looking at and listening to the Third this once, I was overwhelmed. I thought it was beautifully produced, played and danced, but I confess I failed to get the spirituality of it all.
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 to 1996, Siegel was a member of the resident faculty of the Department of Performance Studies, Tisch School of the Arts, New York University.