Dance Review: Mark Morris’s Ups and Downs

A Mark Morris world premiere is turning the attention of the national press to the state of the Boston Ballet Company under new director Mikko Nissinen.

By Debra Cash

Choreographer Mark Morris once said something to the effect that after George Balanchine died, people started to believe that every work Balanchine had ever choreographed was great. Such veneration, he scoffed, was a patent absurdity, obscuring actual achievements under the undiscriminating veil of the master’s reputation.

Morris is alive and accounted for, thank you very much. Still, his fans and some critics have adopted a similar knee-jerk partiality. Truth must be spoken. Morris’ 2006 world premiere for Boston Ballet’s “Up and Down” is a dud, a wasted opportunity. Of course, every artist can have a bad day — it’s just unfortunate that Morris had his here.

It’s not that Morris can’t choreograph for ballet dancers. He may prefer working with his own troupe and deliberately upend the notions of hierarchy and heterosexual pairings built into the ballet tradition, but he has successfully created a number of substantial ballet works. The first one that he created for Boston Ballet in 1986, “Mort Subite” (also the name of a bar he favored during his directorship at the Theatre Royal de la Monnaie), still lingers in the mind, with its oblique echoes of the London blitz, the ballerinas in anklets and toe shoes shielding their eyes as they tiptoed backwards as if scanning the sky for bombers. BB has presented “Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes,” created for American Ballet Theatre, and danced “Maelstrom,” choreographed for San Francisco Ballet, twice.

Every ballet company director in the world covets a Mark Morris premiere. As it turns out, the best part of “Up and Down” is the choreographer’s choice of an obscure 1932 Glazunov quartet for saxophones (played with alternating sobriety and swing by members of the Ballet’s orchestra). It sounds like a Boston Pops piece transcribed for a lopsided high school band, with a few blues wails slipping in.

“Up and Down” displays an uncharacteristic lack of invention on Morris’ part, although the melting ensemble arrangements affirm his unerring craftsmanship. Pretty ballerina poses such as pointed toes resting against the floor while the dancers wait to spring into action and jaunty grapevine steps that announce “and away we go!” frame a series of solos: Raul Salamanca raising his hands against the hymnal in the sax’s melody, looking like a movie matinee idol cast against type to portray a holy man; Lorna Feijoo parading herself with flouncy impudence; and new Boston Ballet principal Tai Jimenez, a dancer with a sweet loft to her carriage, being passed around a trio of men who look like they are negotiating where to plant a flagpole.

The Morris premiere did accomplish one goal for company director Mikko Nissinen. It turned the attention of Boston, and of a national press, to the state of the company since Nissinen took over in 2002.

Overall, the dancers look good. The principals and soloists Nissinen has brought in or promoted can be divided into two broad denominations. The first group, led by Lorna Feijoo, is made up of dancers trained in Cuba or Central America who have clear, Russian-inflected technique, distinct musicality, and a lack of self-consciousness in their dramatic self-presentation. The second group, led by the photogenic Hawaiian dancer Romi Beppu, is made up of tiny ballerinas of Asian origin who excel in soubrette parts and who, when they are dancing in more modern works, throw themselves into their roles with surprising abandon.

Nissinen seems committed to filling in the bench: there may not be any principal dancers who can melt the heart as Trinidad Sevillano did in the 1990s, or technicians who can match the gracious elan of Paul Thrussel or the dynamism of late regular guest artist Fernando Bujones, but one is less likely to cringe at sloppy positions or hope the corps dancers will get through their paces unscathed in the course of a performance. In soloist Kathleen Breen Combes, he has a glamour girl in the making.

Temperamentally guarded, Nissinen breaks the company’s repertoire into thirds: one third traditional story ballets (“Cinderella,” in the fall, broke box office records), one third neoclassical repertory, including Balanchine and the European big names, such as Jiri Kylian and William Forsythe, and the final third taking risks on “today’s generation of choreographers” who not incidentally tend to create works that let individuals within an ensemble shine. Remembering the company’s low point with dreadful Ben Stevenson ballets like “Dracula” and “Cleopatra,” most risks at Boston Ballet would be an improvement, but the jury is still out on Nissinen’s ability to choose wisely from among the talents of the new generation.

What he wants, it seems, is for Boston Ballet to be a cross between the San Francisco Ballet and a hard-edged, strobe-lit European ballet company, one that can coax younger audiences into the theatre with ads that include adjectives like “hot sexy bold,” terms that more commonly attend fashion shows and lingerie. Resident choreographer Jorma Elo’s upcoming “Carmen” is being reconceived as “supermodel meets Formula One race car driver.” I suppose you can’t get more sexy and bold than that.

Nissinen was a principal dancer with San Francisco Ballet for ten years, and he seems to have imported some of those influences wholesale. Wonder what Nissinen was thinking when he scheduled “Lambarena,” a bizarre “tribute to Albert Schweitzer” where Bach-meets-African-drums and the dancers shake their pecs and fling their arabesques as if they were dreaming of becoming Ailey dancers? The choreographer is Val Caniparoli, who has been at San Francisco ballet for three decades (he’ll be back with a new work in 2007).

Where did he discover Helen Pickett, the former Forsythe ballerina whose “Etesian” replaces brutalism with a more flowing improvisational intricacy, all deliberate musculature that derails the dancers’ center of gravity and uses the stage space as a place to luxuriate in one’s own young body? She’s a San Francisco Ballet alum. Luckily, Pickett is smart and talented and she gave Yury Yanowsky a chance to get his Edward Villella on in a kick-boxing, head-bopping solo that he’s been waiting to do for years.

Mixing it up is hard; getting the proportions right daunting. Can Nissinen do it? We have the rest of the season in May — an evening of Russian ballet followed by that “Carmen” — to puzzle out the results.

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