The Boston Ballet’s program was meant as a tribute to the 100th anniversary of Finnish independence.
Boston Ballet’s Obsidian Tear at the Boston Opera House, Boston, MA, through November 12.
By Marcia B. Siegel
Boston Ballet’s season opener — the program runs through next weekend — is named after a co-production with London’s Royal Ballet, Wayne McGregor’s Obsidian Tear. It premiered in the spring of 2016. Friday evening here began with Jean Sibelius’s “Finlandia,” played by the orchestra alone under guest conductor Daniel Stewart. With Jorma Elo’s new Fifth Symphony of Jean Sibelius, and Obsidian Tear‘s score by Esa-Pekka Salonen, a fellow Finn of the Ballet’s artistic director Mikko Nissinen, the program was meant as a tribute to the 100th anniversary of Finnish independence.
During the familiar “Finlandia,” with its booming timpani and horns, its dramatic crescendos and decrescendos, I thought how infrequently I get to hear a live symphony orchestra in all its classical grandeur, with no dancing to look at. Encountering Salonen’s score for the first time, I noted how the composer spliced the musical resources and devices of the 19th century into a more loosely structured contemporary framework. All this music demonstrated the adaptability of classicism itself. That applies to dance as well. Ballet classicism isn’t the same as its musical analogue, but both can evolve infinitely. Think of the difference between Mozart, Beethoven, and Sibelius, for instance. Or between Swan Lake and a Balanchine ballet.
On the surface, Obsidian Tear and Jorma Elo’s ballet couldn’t be more different. McGregor’s work features nine men clad in modishly skin-baring garments; they group and regroup to simulate different kinds of relationships. Elo’s piece has 35 dancers ranking from Principals down to Artists in the technical hierarchy, deployed in formal designs that seem to have no ulterior meanings. Both ballets require skills that are basic to classical ballet. McGregor applies the expressive gestures and flexibility of modern dance to the stringent skills of classically trained bodies. Elo arranges classical steps and variations into a big display of unflustered formalism.
According to Uzma Hameed’s lengthy program note for Obsidian Tear, Salonen based his music in part on the mythological Nyx, an all-powerful goddess who controlled dark forces like death and fate. I don’t know how McGregor connected to this imagery. As the dancers partnered each other, lifting and turning in recollections of the classical pas de deux, the duets might as well have been heterosexual. If there was a Nyx character, she was danced by a man too. And I wondered why.
It seems there’s a plot of sorts. A different set of couturiers dressed each man. With simulated bare feet, some outfits revealed cut-out shoulders, midsections, thighs. Some exposed the dancers’ shapely legs, or looked like little cocktail dresses. Others had long, flaring pants and no tops, or skirts made of knee-length streamers. All but one of the costumes were black except for one in red. McGregor may have intended us to track individuals, but instead of identifying them with characters in a myth, he named all nine cast members equally in the program and hardly singled any of them out in the course of the action.
Okay, I’ll admit that I couldn’t quite identify the characters as reported by several other critics, or follow the action as if it were a story. As I saw it Friday night, the man in red (Irlan Silva) and one of the others (Paulo Arrais) confronted each other. First in silence, then with a solo violin (Christine Vitale playing Salonen’s “Lachen Verlent”), they tensely regarded each other doing solos that ended in dazzling spins. Then, after touching tenderly, they left together as the other men entered. They met one another, partnering in various ways, some wary, some erotic, some defensive, with lots of swooping gestures and tumbles to the floor. Horns brought in the full orchestra for Salonen’s “Nyx.” After that I remember only certain things that stood out among the comings and goings.
Small groups clustered together to surround and lift others. The men in black seemed to be threatening Silva. Someone stood in front of Silva and touched him, tenderly, it seemed. When they moved apart, Silva had a big black mark smeared across his chest. He was carried up a ramp to a huge black platform in the black backdrop, and pushed off, I think by Arrais. When Silva disappeared overboard, Arrais came down the ramp clutching his stomach. He “died,” but was revived by Patrick Yocum. Unsuccessfully, it seemed, because after they danced rough duet Arrais escaped. He leaped into the pit as the orchestra slid very fast into an upper register, recalling the last notes of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring.”
No use looking for role-playing in Jorma Elo’s Fifth Symphony of Jean Sibelius, unless it was Ashley Ellis, echoing the Lilac Fairy or one of George Balanchine’s odd-woman-out characters. All the other dancers had partners of the opposite sex. All the featured ensembles were framed by lesser ranked groups. The highest ranking dancers (Lia Cirio with Paul Craig, Kathleen Breen Combes with Junxiong Zhao, and Misa Kuranaga with John Lam) danced either solo or with their partners. The four secondary pairs came in behind the principals. The ten pairs of lowest ranking dancers backed them all up. If Elo meant with this exercise to show off the classical chops at all levels of the company, he succeeded, and so did the dancers.
Elo avoided a turgid predictability by keeping the forces moving all the time, changing their positions and groupings in surprising ways so you didn’t know who would be next and where they’d come from. Finally the whole ensemble gathered for a big unison ending, perhaps à la Balanchine’s Symphony in C. But just as the audience got over this massive onslaught, Sibelius discharged his own apocalyptic surprise, six crashing chords with long pauses in between. The audience began to titter after the first return of the chord and laughed at the false endings until the curtain came down.
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.