Dance Review: Boston Ballet II’s Pocket Survey

The Boston Ballet II program was a miniature survey of classical ballet history, a perfect challenge for apprentice dancers.

Boston Ballet II and select Summer Dance Program participants. Boston Ballet studio, 19 Clarendon Street, Boston, MA on July 31.

Abigail Merlis and Graham Johns of Boston Ballet II in George Balanchine's "Haeiff Divertimento." Photo: Igor Burlak Photography.

Abigail Merlis and Graham Johns of Boston Ballet II in George Balanchine’s “Haeiff Divertimento.” Photo: Igor Burlak Photography.

By Marcia B Siegel

The summer showing of Boston Ballet II and its Summer Dance Program Ensemble last Saturday afternoon was like a miniature survey of classical ballet history, a perfect challenge for apprentice dancers. The program ranged from the theatricalized folk dances of August Bournonville to the ferocious, multi-focused virtuosity of Jorma Elo, with samples of high Russian classicism, Balanchinian neo-classicism, and the offbeat classicism of Twyla Tharp.

The program began with George Balanchine’s chamber-size Haieff Divertimento (1947), choreographed during that extraordinary period when the choreographer was without his own company but was rethinking his classical inheritance. From 1946 to 1948, among other things, he made the astounding Four Temperarments, Palais de Cristal/Symphony in C, and Theme and Variations. Freelancing, he choreographed story ballets, operas, revivals of classics, and second thoughts on his own earlier ballets, as well as small-scale pieces that don’t get much attention now. The Haieff was among them.

In an introductory talk with the head of Boston Ballet II Peter Stark and director of the company school Margaret Tracey, Nilas Martins, who staged the work, pointed out that you could recognize steps Balanchine was inventing at the time that turned up in other ballets. But the whole of the Haieff looked like a miniature version of a more expansive and grandiose work. Or maybe the miniature form is Balanchine’s innovation. The prototype is the final act of the big classical ballets — Sleeping Beauty or Raymonda — where everyone gathers to celebrate the resolution of all the plot complications, for a big duet, solos, and group dances. In the Haieff, Balanchiine makes four couples and two principal dancers stand for a large ensemble.

There’s no plot in the background but hints of character prevent it from looking absolutely neutral. In the opening Prelude, the male soloist (Graham Johns) leads the small corps, looking around occasionally for a partner of his own. She appears at the end of the opening dance (Abigail Merlis), and they dance a slow duet together. There’s a dance for the men and then for the women, and the choreographer gives the solo woman her own solo dance (Lullaby). In a balanced closing, the whole cast dances an ensemble Finale.

Haieff Divertimento was followed by the Pas de Deux from Marius Petipa’s La Bayadère (1877). With its melodramatic plot about rivalries and power struggles, La Bayadère satisfied the audience’s love of spectacle in the days before movies, and it’s the kind of thing Balanchine synthesized in the Haieff. Some of Petipa’s ballets were notated late in the game, after the choreographer himself had made his own revisions and updates. But there really were no definitive versions, as there are now of Balanchine’s works — or Twyla Tharp’s for that matter. Each new production pursued its own notions of the original.

Even in Petipa’s time, the virtuosic set pieces in the big ballets were adapted for the specialties of the dancers who performed them. They were often excerpted for special occasions, minus the cumbersome plots and designs. La Bayadère had a few of these in the course of its original seven scenes, including the Pas de Deux we saw in the studio performance. I’m told Peter Stark learned it from the celebrated dancer Fernando Bujones, who had a lofty jump and a sexy stage persona.

The Pas de Deux was part of a famous scene, the Kingdom of the Shades, where Solor, the hero, takes opium to forget the romantic entanglements that have led to the murder of his pure love, Nikiya. She appears in his dream accompanied by a corps of ethereal women. After they’ve demonstrated perfect maneuvers of balance and coordination, Solor and Nikiya dance together in a classical partnership. In the studio performance, we saw Derek Drilon as the hero, with soaring jumps and courtly behavior. Gabrielle Beach, in a flaring, thigh-length tutu, was the hallucinatory Nikiya, demonstrating the pointe work and turning that are a ballerina’s stock-in-trade.

When Twyla Tharp was figuring out ballet in the 1970s, she deflected applause-inducing displays with dancing that appeared nonchalant and choreography that ambushed the viewer’s expectations. She made As Time Goes By in 1973 for the Joffrey Ballet, right after the huge success of Deuce Coupe. Richard Colton, who was in the original cast, taught the first two parts to the young Boston dancers.

Boston Ballet II and Boston Ballet School Summer Dance Program students in August Bournonville's Napoli; photo by Igor Burlak Photography; courtesy of Boston Ballet

Boston Ballet II and Boston Ballet School Summer Dance Program students in August Bournonville’s “Napoli.” Photo: Igor Burlak Photography.

The dance was set to the last two movements of Haydn’s “Farewell Symphony” but it begins in silence, with a solo that seems to cram an evening’s worth of steps into a minute of dancing. Angela Bishop did it wonderfully, making the unxpected changes of tempo and direction perfectly clear and seamless. Then she joined five other dancers in a sextet that, once again, refused to line everything up neatly.

In a busy clump, the dancers sped through another few minutes of showing off, meeting up, reversing themselves, and trading places. Amid the nonstop action, Tharp embedded feats of elevation and timing you might not notice. Just when it seemed to be over, another three dancers appeared. Then it was over. A nice ending, possibly supplied by Colton. Like the dots you put after a sentence you haven’t finished writing. I guess it alluded to the rest of the work, which had 17 dancers altogether.

Anthony Randazzo staged the solo from Jorma Elo’s Slice to Sharp (2006) for Christian Pforr. Accompanied by a flamboyant Vivaldi violin solo, Pforr jerked and jittered, in a string of high-energy moves where he activates an odd part of the body — a shoulder, an elbow — but before the movement travels very far, it’s cut off by a counter-move in another body part. The audience is bowled over by the sheer ingenuity of it.

The afternoon finished off with the joyous Tarantella from August Bournonville’s Napoli (1842). Bouronville wasn’t much for pointe work. HIs ballets are about ordinary people, not members of the monarchy or their surrogates. Although there’s a classical Pas de Sept on pointe in Napoli, the ballet winds up with this Tarantella, where the village celebrates the wedding of the fisherman and his bride with tambourines and a long succession of fast, playful folk dances for couples. I could look at this dance every day.

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.


  1. kai maristed on August 15, 2016 at 11:55 pm

    Thnks for ths deeply informed review of how the young dancers are being formed in Boston, to form future audiences.

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