|| The Boston Phoenix
|| October 23, 2009
|| Jeffrey Gantz
"World Passions," the collection of four works that Boston Ballet opened at the Opera House last night, was more pleasant than passionate until Kathleen Breen Combes sashayed out as the title character in Jorma Elo's Carmen. For the next half-hour, there was enough energy on stage to fill an entire evening, Elo's work looking like West Side Story as choreographed by William Forsythe, and Breen Combes and her Don José, Yury Yanowsky, all stormy weather. It was more satisfying than many opera stagings of Bizet's work.
Repertory programs are generally designed on the "something old, something new" principle. "World Passions" was mostly new: company ballet master Pino Alosa's world-premiere adaptation of Marius Petipa's choreography for the 1881 ballet Paquita; the world premiere of Helen Pickett's Tsukiyo; former company principal Viktor Plotnikov'sRhyme, which had its world premiere at Boston Ballet's 2008 "Night of Stars" gala; and Jorma Elo's Carmen, which had its world premiere at Boston Ballet in 2006 but has since been revised and is now going under the name Carmen/Illusions. Two sizable pieces sandwiching two short ones made for a long evening: with two intermissions, the program ran nearly three hours.
Paquita began life in 1846 in Paris; in 1881 Petipa updated it for St. Petersburg, with a new grand pas de deux classique and pas de trois and children's mazurka by Don Quixote composer Ludwig Minkus. Petipa's additions are pretty much all that's left of the ballet (though it's been reconstructed for the Paris Opera Ballet), and they make for a popular classical divertissement. Boston Ballet last did it, in a version by Tatiana Legat, in 2007, on a bill with Dace Dindonis's ill-starred Carmen. (The plot of Paquita has to do with a Gypsy girl, hence the connection with Carmen, and with "passions.") It's the kind of showstopper you expect to see at ABT, with fans whistling for their favorites.
That's never been the Boston Ballet way, though the 1997 opening-night Paquita, Larissa Ponomarenko, was electrifying. Last night, Ponomarenko was on crutches, having broken a bone in her foot, and we got Lorna Feijóo and Nelson Madrigal in the grand pas de deux. Feijóo shone in her closing fouettés, which she did while revolving in a circle while staying smack on the beat, but she doesn't have Ponomarenko's elasticity of phrasing, and both she and Madrigal look oddly pulled in. He had his best moments in the air, especially two big ciseaux, and he landed a pair of double tours in a creditable arabesque, but he also stumbled out of a couple of jumps.
Erica Cornejo brought a bright brio to the pas de trois that suggested she'd be a gratifying Paquita -- and she'll be dancing that role Saturday afternoon. In the first of the four solo variations for women, Melissa Hough put the bar up several notches as she flicked a leg up in developpé, teasingly, insouciantly, as if asking did we want to see Italian fouettés; we did, and she obliged. Misa Kuranaga zipped through changes of direction and attack; Breen Combes opened with explosive grands jetés and concluded with an elegant pas de chat. The children's mazurka was given to the corps; the ladies, in their plate tutus, were stylish, but Alosa's choreography wasn't very imaginative. I liked the backdrop, red with a black Moorish-arabesque frame.
Tsukiyo -- "moonlit night" in Japanese -- is a duet set, after a brief introduction, to Estonian composer Arvo Pärt's Spiegel im Spiegel, a mesmerizing violin cantilena over repeating piano arpeggiation that's both beautiful and boring. Sabi Varga entered in front of the curtain -- which was lit to suggest a forest -- and pulled it back to reveal what might have been a space capsule set in the middle of a shrine. Lia Cirio emerged and the dance began, Cirio childlike, deerlike, plunging forward, drawing back, Varga reassuring but in vain. Pickett's inspiration seemed to run out before the 10 minutes or so of music did. Rhyme is a piece Plotnikov did for Ponomarenko (his wife) and Yanowsky; danced last night by Heather Waymack and Altan Dugaraa, it retained its mystery but not the intensity that Ponomarenko and Yanowsky gave it last year. It begins in silence, with poses and slow-motion interrupted by blackouts; then the Largo from Chopin's Sonata for Cello and Piano starts up, and the pair dance in unison, at right angles, separately, moving as if through water, writing "a poem with two bodies," as Plotnikov explains it, looking for the rhyme. Like Tsukiyo, the piece tips off its ending; the audience was applauding before the music stopped.
Elo's Carmen first lit up (hey, our heroine works in a cigar factory) the Wang Theatre in May of 2006, and even over the two weeks of that first presentation, the choreographer made significant changes. The piece is set to the 45-minute Carmen Suite that Russian composer Rodion Shchedrin, drawing on Bizet's themes, composed for his wife, Maya Plisetskaya, for Alberto Alonso's 1967 ballet. The story, we were told, had been updated: Carmen was now a supermodel, Escamillo a Formula One driver, Don José a soldier but also a businessman. Little of that was evident on the Wang stage. Shchedrin's music was like the ghost of Bizet's opera, and the dancers ghosted through the outlines of Prosper Mérimée's story, in solos and duets, on Mikki Kunttu's bifurcated amphitheater backdrop that suggested the halves of a bullring.
That story is, of course, just begging to be danced: Mikaela (in Elo's spelling) in the big city searching for her home-town sweetie, Don José; Don José falling for Carmen; Carmen getting into a catfight with a fellow worker; Don José getting dressed down by his commanding officer, Zuniga; Carmen (and all the other ladies) falling for Escamillo; Mikaela reproaching Don José; Don José stabbing Zuniga; Carmen and Don José falling out; Don José stabbing Carmen and being hauled off; Mikaela mourning. Elo's Mikaela exudes self-pity, but now she's also hyper, a finger-wagging hopscotching little girl who wants to take Don José back to their childhood -- and he's not altogether unwilling. Cirio has always danced this part; it will be interesting to see what Megan Gray makes of it Saturday afternoon.
For 30 minutes, Breen Combes and Yanowsky made this Carmen fly, she sinuous and swivel-hipped and in total control, he improbably combining Clark Gable and Danny Kaye. Pavel Gurevich is an imperious Zuniga who with a single look can expose Don José's frailties -- Elo might give this character more to do, and likewise Hough's Mercedes. Varga was the star Escamillo in 2006, and he's back, but his part seems to have been tamped down, though Breen Combes heated up as she danced with him. Some obscurities, like the murder of Zuniga, have been brought out from the shadows, but some subtleties, like the way Escamillo and Carmen would lose track of each other, seem to have disappeared. In place of Don José writing furiously on the walls of the structure, we now have Carmen writing furiously on Escamillo's bare back. The piece loses steam once Carmen and Don José break up. But for the time that Breen Combes and Yanowsky are passionate about each other, "World Passions" lives up to its name.