Three modes of George Balanchine
Boston Ballet performs a collection of choreographed works
Boston Opera House
May 17 – June 9
Ballet has never been the same since George Balanchine quickened, illuminated, and transformed the artform. Balanchine, the father of American ballet, incorporates elements from gymnastics, circus, and classical ballet into his choreography. Boston Ballet brings to the audience the design of a master in his element, in a series of three works that showcase what makes Balanchine a classic in the ballet world.
The narrative ballet adapts the Biblical story of the Prodigal Son into a performative drama. “The Parable of the Lost Son” is a warning against squandering wealth: a son (Derek Dunn) is given his inheritance by his father, wastes it all in a foreign country, and returns home begging for forgiveness. From the painted backgrounds and one prop that acts first as a fence, a table, a ship, a pillar, and a gate, the prodigal son too transforms his character after leaving and coming through the gate back home.
Movements were swift and deft; the seduction and conflict between the prodigal son and the Siren who lures him (Lia Cirio) is both amusing (she reminds me of Shakespeare’s wily Cleopatra) and haunting. We already know the young naive man’s fate: he will lose everything and return home. Intriguing arrangements of the Siren’s servants who lift her up are a spectacle to behold, but she makes quick work of the prodigal son. Two contrasting images are presented: she is lifted, regal in her magenta cloak, while he is stripped of his clothes and tied alone against a pillar.
This slow, methodical performance was reminiscent of a student play, with the painted background and single prop, but the technical skill of the dancers remind you that it is not. In the final emotional scene, we watch the son crawl home, desolate. The most agonizing is that this takes place in real time. The audience is forced to see him use his arms, stumble, and heave his useless body and legs across the stage. I almost wondered if this was supposed to juxtapose the later performances, where the freedom of dance could be felt. When he finally makes it to the gate, two women greet him, and his father effortlessly lifts his boy in his arms.
After the first intermission, the upbeat Stravinsky Violin Concerto pays homage to Igor Stravinsky, whose music had a profound influence on Balanchine’s career. In contrast to the narrative ballet, this performance is simple. A group of dancers dressed in plain white and black open alongside Stravinsky’s Concerto in D for Violin and Orchestra.
The performance is warm and evocative; the solo violin is backed by cheerful oboes, flutes, and clarinets that sing as the dancers silently spring and leap for the toccata. Following the toccata are a pair of arias, accompanied by two pas de deux by two different couples. Kathleen Breen Combes and John Lam fritter as a pair, then followed for the second aria with Paul Craig and Maria Baranova. The first is sprightly, the second more so, as the dynamics shift between each pair. A capriccio closes out this Concerto.
Finally, the program closed off with Chaconne, set to music from Christoph Willibald von Cluck’s opera Orpheus and Eurydice. When the curtains swept to the side, the audience sighed in wonder at what they saw. We’ve moved from the earth, grounded story of the prodigal son to a sky-blue background, featuring female dancers in flowing gowns with hair let down and male dancers in white blouses. A series of performances of varying numbers — the pas de deux by Misa Kuranaga and Patrick Yocum was a standout — seemed so ethereal that I was merely in awe and at loss of words. Graceful and powerful, each small performance was remarkable to stare at as each dancer soared across and around the stage.
I realized that the tragedy of performances is that they are fleeting; when Orpheus couldn’t help but look back, the beautiful Eurydice is whisked back into the Underworld. He grieves as I do as the curtain falls and the dream performance ends.