Dance Review: Classical, Three Ways, at Boston Ballet

All of three of these ballets adapted the classical vocabulary and demonstrated that constant evolution is what keeps classicism alive.

Balanchine’s Stravinsky Violin Concerto, Jorma Elo’s Creatures of Egmont, Jerome Robbins’s The Concert (Or, The Perils of Everybody). Performed by the Boston Ballet at the Boston Opera House, Boston, MA, through May 27.

A scene in the Boston Ballet's performance of "" Photo: Courtesy of Boston Ballet.

A scene in the Boston Ballet’s performance of “The Concert (Or, The Perils of Everybody).” Photo: Courtesy of Boston Ballet.

By Marcia B. Siegel

Boston Ballet’s last program of the 2016-17 season featured ballets in three different styles and eras. None of them was strictly classical like Sleeping Beauty. But all of them adapted the classical vocabulary and demonstrated that constant evolution is what keeps classicism alive.

George Balanchine celebrated his long and productive relationship with Igor Stravinsky a year after the composer’s death with a week-long festival at New York City Ballet in 1972. Apollo (1928) had launched more than a half century of lively encounters between the two artists. Balanchine made nine new works to Stravinsky compositions for the 1972 festival, among them the black-and-white Violin Concerto. The spare, even stark, visual landscapes that characterize Balanchine’s “modern ballets” may have originated because of economics: practice clothes and no scenery are more frugal than expensive sets and costumes. In this clean setting, Balanchine could examine the classical vocabulary, and he could ask the audience to do the same.

In the Violin Concerto the underlying structure is basic enough for anyone to follow. There are two contrasting principal couples with a backup chorus of eight men and eight women. To begin, he introduces the forces gradually, one small unit at a time, almost mathematically assembling the forces in different ways without putting them all together. Each of the principal couples has its own duet , then finally all four soloists and sixteen ensemble members join in the last movement. Within this framework the dance introduces surprising shapes and combinations. You don’t get lost, despite the complexity of the music, a solo violin (Jason Horowitz) against a string orchestra.

First we see a female soloist (Kathleen Breen Combes on Saturday night) with four men behind her in counterpoint. Their dance is followed by similar assortments for the other soloists (Maria Baranova, Paulo Arrais and Paul Craig) and their opposite-sex comrades. The consistent assertion of rankings and groupings allows the choreographer to impose compositional elaborations like counterpoint, canons, mirroring, and square-dance-type lineups. The movement vocabulary similarly uses strict classroom steps as a platform for inversions, unexpected shapes, and unclassical supports. Nothing about this ballet is traditional except the foundation from which it departs. (Stravinsky Violin Concerto appears on a Nonesuch DVD with other Balanchine ballets from “Dance in America.” It’s also viewable on YouTube.)

Contemporary choreographer Jorma Elo’s new work, Creatures of Egmont, was also a formal work. It began promisingly, with the six couples dancing classical steps only slightly off-kilter. Elo used four musical selections from the 19th century, Beethoven’s Egmont and Creatures of Prometheus overtures and two Bach fugues arranged for a large orchestra. Elo often uses noise music or collages of miscellany, so it was interesting to see him working with the more romantic sounds here.

Though the ballet maintains its formal groupings, it began to seem cluttered to me before the first section ended. I think this was because Elo uses the music only for its gross shape and doesn’t reflect its complexity. His movement vocabulary sometimes referred to Balanchine’s choreographic precedents, but never to Balanchine’s confidence in the audience’s musical comprehension. Dressed by Robert Perdziola in bright blue unitards, with John Cuff’s sometimes dim blue lighting, the dancers were often unrecognizable to me.

The oldest piece chronologically was Jerome Robbins’s The Concert (1956), a spoof of both classical ballet and the kind of highbrow audience that was faithfully supporting the New York City Ballet in its early years. Drop curtains designed for the work in 1958 by Saul Steinberg depicted the audience as seen from the back of the house and the stage. They were replaced, I don’t know why, some time after Boston acquired this production from San Francisco Ballet, with drops created, I don’t know when, by the late Edward Gorey. Some research via the Internet reveals that Gorey’s designs have also been used by several other companies, the Royal Ballet, Pacific Northwest, and the Joffrey All Stars among them.

Though I’m a fan of Gorey’s gothic imagination, his drops signify a ballet that’s about the music: a grand piano with wicked claw feet on a stage, female butterflies hovering overhead, and furled umbrellas leaning out of the wings. Steinberg wittily indicated that the ballet is as much about the audience as it is about the music.

Robbins tweaked his ballet for years, as he did most of his work, and the version we saw in Boston looked authentic with the Saturday night cast: Alex Foaksman as the snooty onstage pianist, Ashley Ellis as the ingenue, Rachele Buriassi as the shrewish wife, Sabi Varga as the henpecked husband who goes off the rails, and a supporting cast of aesthetes, cossacks and butterflies. The piano and later the full orchestra play short, familiar Chopin pieces for each scene.

In the heyday of comics Milton Berle, Sid Cesar and Zero Mostel, Robbins was at the peak of his dual career as a choreographer of ballets and commercial shows. The Concert is a series of sketches in a genial slapstick vein. I noticed for the first time how many gender jokes and stereotypes infect this ballet, in a good-natured way that couldn’t happen today.

In fact, all the characters reflect the annoying side of people who might be less obnoxious if they weren’t being carried away by Chopin. Robbins was intensely involved in psychological analysis, including his own. So it’s not surprising that the wimpy young man sees himself mortally intimidated by his ballerina idol, then dragging her off after beating her over the head. Or that the husband imagines himself conquering the ingenue among a grand flocking of butterflies, to be thwarted once again by his shrewish wife. The two gabby women and the butch female become members of an earnest ballet corps in which one girl is always out of step and the others try to maneuver her unobtrusively into line. The ingenue is the picture of vanity, with a pink chiffon sash and long blond hair. She commands a seat next to the piano and literally embraces the music. She’s so mesmerized she doesn’t realize it when the tough woman yanks the chair out from under her.

I thought the Boston dancers were a little restrained, but Robbins’s humor can get over the top fast, so less is probably more. The audience loved it.

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.

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