|| The Boston Phoenix
|| May 7, 2010
|| Jeffrey Gantz
George Balanchine was famous for “non-story” ballets, but when you put three of his works — the usual number to fill up an evening — together, you always get some kind of narrative. Take Boston Ballet’s “Ultimate Balanchine” trio, which opened at the Opera House last night. Apollo (1928) appears to be about the birth of dance, as the god, his curiosity piqued by the syncopated four-note motif Stravinsky has given him, passes on Muses Calliope (poetry and its rhythm) and Polyhymnia (mime) to partner with Terpsichore (who combines what her sisters offered) before ascending to Mount Parnassus. The Four Temperaments (1946) fragments Terpsichore into the four title humors, with dancing that’s a lot more down to earth. Then Theme and Variations (1947) follows Apollo to Parnassus — it’s dance as apotheosis, Russian-style.
At least, that’s my narrative. Boston Ballet artistic director Mikko Nissinen must have his own version, since he’s chosen to start “Ultimate Balanchine” with The Four T’s and then go to Apollo. Never mind, what counts in Balanchine is not the story but the sensibility. And, opening night, dancing the solo part in the last of The Four T’s, Choleric, Kathleen Breen Combes had it, exploding from her gut into all four limbs and shimmying through Paul Hindemith’s spiky score as if there were no bar lines. It was the evening’s Parnassus but by no means the only peak on a program of works that, even by Balanchine standards, can fairly be called “Ultimate.”
The Four T’s has its own mini-narrative: a three-part Theme and then four Variations — Melancholic, Sanguinic, Phlegmatic, Choleric — each treating the Theme’s three parts. (When, back in 1977, The Four T’s was taped for PBS’s Dance in America series, the cyc backdrop was color-coded: blue for the first part, yellow for the second, red for the third. These days, everything is blue.) The Theme posits a war between the sexes, each part with its own couple, the men standing behind the women, in control — perhaps. As in so much of Balanchine, it’s also a war between point and flow (or particle and wave); of the three couples last night, it was the third, Megan Gray and Sabi Varga, who managed to give us both.
John Lam’s big, soft Melancholic balances muscle with meditation, and he’s not fazed when the quartet of psychopomp ladies turn up, their scything grands battements like the heartbeats of the universe. All jutting hips and flicking legs, Erica Cornejo makes Sanguinic look almost too easy, but that’s in the character. Her partner, Nelson Madrigal, seems heavy by comparison, though last night his entrechat six were well defined. A second quartet of ladies, meanwhile, hot-foot it across the stage, as if they’d somehow all wound up in Hell rather than Heaven, and though Cornejo dances with them briefly, the couple and the quartet go their separate ways. Carlos Molina’s droopy, centrifugal Phlegmatic just wants to get along, so of course his female quartet keep getting in the way, waggling their pelvises (this seemed understated last night), offering and not offering, while he tries to protect his space. Once Hindemith’s music lopes into its third part, however, man and women reach an accord. That breaks down at once with Breen Combes’s feral entrance in Choleric. This time it’s a quartet of men surrounding the woman, hunters, or the bachelors from Marcel Duchamp’s Large Glass — but it turns out Breen Combes has reinforcements. As the themes — musical and choreographic — and the dancers from the previous sections return, harmony — musical and sexual — breaks out.
Apollo is also a theme and variations and a battle of the sexes — so maybe that’s the story in this program. Apollo himself is the theme — even without the prologue in which we see him born (Balanchine dropped it in 1979), you know you’re watching his existential birth, his artistic birth, his romantic birth. In that signature moment when he opens and closes his right fist, he’s the center of the universe — or it’s the center of him. And when he dances with his three half-sisters (all of them children of Zeus) in close-order drill, Balanchine is anticipating the daisy chains of ballets yet to be born (notably Theme and Variations), the perfection of the individual within the perfection of the group. Pavel Gurevich is an expansive and wide-eyed god-in-the-making; Rie Ichikawa is an overdramatic, redundant Calliope (but then, that’s why Apollo passes on her), Whitney Jensen a leggy, exuberant Polyhymnia. Lia Cirio’s Terpsichore is hard to fault: she does everything right, but she looks as if she were trying to do everything right instead of just doing it.
Balanchine changed the ending of Apollo as well as the beginning: instead of climbing a staircase to Parnassus, leaving the Muses in his wake (is this a metaphor for the choreographer and his ballerina Muses?), the god stands with an arm stretched outward and the three ladies fan out behind him in different stages of arabesque. It doesn’t match the stark farewell of Stravinsky’s score, which departs without having answered its four-note riddle. The loss of Stravinsky’s prologue, too, is crippling to the structure of the music. Boston Ballet did the pre-1979 version in 1993; I was sorry not to see it this time out.
Theme and Variations is set to the fourth movement of Tchaikovsky’s Suite No. 3 — as long as the first three movements put together, this finale comprises a theme and 12 variations, the last one yet another of the composer’s imperial polonaises. Arlene Croce used to compare Balanchine’s interpretation to The Sleeping Beauty in the way it develops out of basic elements, and it is a kind of mini story ballet, with sumptuous tutus and gauzy curtains framing the Mariinsky-blue backdrop and a huge chandelier. The lead couple — Misa Kuranaga and James Whiteside last night — dance opposite each other in the theme, but they don’t meet again till variation #10, a pas de deux with violin cantilena. In between, Kuranaga flashes through some gargouillades (#2), Whiteside answers with big, pellucid ronds de jambe (#6), there’s a fugue (#5), a spooky woodwind chorale (#7), and a cor anglais–haunted threnody (#8) in which the eight corps women form a daisy chain and Kuranaga, on pointe, describes three stages of développé: croisé, effacé, ecarté — it’s as if Balanchine were faceting a precious stone. Kuranaga and Whiteside are royally steady in the supported balances of the pas de deux, and the big diagonal that forms out of the preliminary polonaises (more geometry from Mr. B) is everything you could hope for.
What you could hope for as this production develops is a sharper attack, with fewer rounded edges, and more coiled energy — too much is flying off into the wings. And more attitude. The orchestra, under Boston Ballet music director Jonathan McPhee, maintains a discreet low profile in the Hindemith and Stravinsky but lets loose, to glorious effect, in the woodwind-saturated Tchaikovsky.