|| The Boston Globe
|| April 24, 2011
|| Jeffrey Gantz
“Bella Figura,’’ the contemporary program that Boston Ballet opens on Thursday at the Boston Opera House, comprises three pieces: Jirí Kylián’s “Bella Figura,’’ William Forsythe’s “The Second Detail,’’ and Helen Pickett’s “Pärt I, II, and III.’’
Boston Ballet principal James Whiteside will be dancing in all three. But to call Whiteside a triple threat would be understating it. Already this season he has been the hunter hero Solor in the company’s “La Bayadère’’ and the fairy king Oberon in its “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.’’ And in “Elo Experience,’’ he sandwiched a romantic pas de deux with Kathleen Breen Combes in “Double Evil’’ in between giving b-boy master classes in “Plan to B’’ and “Brake the Eyes.’’
How did he get himself cast in all three pieces? “Well, for ‘The Second Detail,’ Jill Johnson [the Forsythe stager for this ballet] came, and we had sort of a workshop to cast the ballet,’’ said Whiteside, “and for a couple days, we just did snippets of the choreography, and she chose from what she saw who she wanted to be in the piece. And the same thing for ‘Bella Figura.’ Actually we learned a big group dance, and then we were cast according to how we performed in the sort of cattle-call situation.’’
At least the dancers didn’t have the stress of auditioning individually. “Totally. And yet, it’s a little stressful, because these are beautiful ballets, and I want to be in them,’’ Whiteside said. And for Pickett’s piece? “Helen knows all of us quite well [she has set three pieces on the company], and we know her, so she knew who she wanted.’’
Pickett’s “Pärt I, II, and III’’ is itself a triptych, comprising “Tsukiyo’’ (which Boston Ballet premiered in 2009), “Layli o Majnun,’’ and “Tabula Rasa,’’ all three set to music of Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. Whiteside is cast in “Tabula Rasa,’’ but he’s also learning “Tsukiyo’’ (whose title means “Moonlit Night’’), because he will be doing it, and the grand pas de deux from “Nutcracker,’’ with company principal Misa Kuranaga at a ballet gala in Savonlinna, Finland, at the end of July.
He had just watched fellow principal Yury Yanowsky partner Kuranaga in rehearsal. What’s it like to look at another dancer doing your part? “Well, I have to learn it from him. I need a base, first. And then I can make it what I want to do. Helen is very nurturing in that sense. She wants it to be your creation.’’ Indeed, three couples were rehearsing this duet at the same time, and the timing of the choreography to the music — Pärt’s “Spiegel im Spiegel’’ (“Mirror in the Mirror’’) — was different in each case. You cannot be much more creative than that.
“Tsukiyo’’ will look especially dreamy coming right after “The Second Detail,’’ with its industrial-strength Thom Willems score. Whiteside leads off the dancing in this 30-minute powerhouse, and — isn’t that an entrechat six he is doing? It turns out that when you take Forsythe’s moves apart, they can look classical and even Fred Astaire-like. What’s more, Whiteside and Combes do something that is unusual in the shifting relationships of Forsythe ballets: They go steady.
“She’s totally my date to the prom in this,’’ said Whiteside. “I start the ballet facing her; she’s sitting down in the back, and I start the dancing, and then I trail away keeping eye contact with her. And then we meet up, and it’s sassy and spicy. And it’s fun to have just one partner, because your relationship in the piece gets stronger and stronger.’’
Then there’s Kylián’s “Bella Figura,’’ which Boston Ballet will be the first US company to perform. Set to a mostly slow, hypnotic score of music by Baroque composers including Vivaldi and Pergolesi, it has moments when the dancers — women and men — are topless.
Whiteside’s not interested. “I’ve seen so many features on ‘Bella Figura’ that say, ‘featuring nudity.’ Which is preposterous. If you look at it that way, just head over to Centerfolds.
“This ballet is about containing human beauty — which is nudity. And when you watch the ballet in this context, you see art in its most natural way, I suppose. The music and the costumes and the whole thing is so masterfully done, and then it’s so interesting to hear the way people talk about it.’’