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Sharp side of dance
Mikko Nissinen kicks Boston Ballet into gear
BY JEFFREY GANTZ

Inasmuch as Boston Ballet’s season opener, " Morris, Forsythe, and a World Premiere, " celebrates the company’s marriage to new artistic director Mikko Nissinen and new executive director Valerie Wilder, we want something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue. The " old " would be Mark Morris’s Maelstrom, which Boston Ballet performed in February 1999; the " borrowed " Ballett Frankfurt director William Forsythe’s In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated; and the " new " Finnish choreographer Jorma Elo’s SHARP side of DARK, which is brand new since it’s getting its world premiere. As for " blue, " well, this reviewer was not entirely festive after seeing Maelstrom, and In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated should have come in the middle of the program, not at the end. But the Forsythe piece itself is a stag-party keeper, the Elo premiere exchanges vows with Bach’s Goldberg Variations without embarrassing itself, and the new dancers who have come as wedding guests should settle in and stay.

Written in 1808, when he was a guest of Anna Maria Countess von Edödy, Beethoven’s Piano Trio Opus 70 No. 1 is popularly known as the Geister, or " Ghost, " Trio because its Largo middle movement reflects sketches representing

Shakespeare’s Weird Sisters that he made for an opera to be based on Macbeth. But " geist " in German means " spirit " as well as " ghost " : think " Holy Spirit, " or the Spanish concept of " duende. " The Romantic writer and music critic E.T.A. Hoffmann wrote of the Geister-Trio that it made him feel like one " who wanders the paths of a fantastic park among all manner of unusual trees and bushes and wondrous flowers and is drawn deeper and deeper in. "

This sense of Beethoven’s " geist " is what I miss in Maelstrom. The canonic writing in the Trio is well suited to Morris’s style: he begins by sending two of his seven couples — opening night Larissa Ponomarenko and Paul Thrussell, Pollyana Ribeiro and Alexander Ritter — on stage left and having them pass around thematic fragments, with Ribeiro and Ritter initiating the crouched-with-hand-warding-off position that will recur throughout. Lines of four men and four women come on for the exposition repeat, with a fifth couple, Frances Pérez-Ball and Nick Mishoe, occupying the no man’s land in between. All this " develops, " under a cloudy blue sky, into mostly classic ballet positions that are saccharine to the point of parody despite the occasional cute touch. Morris is fabulously fluent in the art of fugue, but to what end? Dancers run on and off at a dizzying rate; far from being drawn into Beethoven’s fantastic park, we’re made to circle the perimeter. Ponomarenko and Thrussell take up the warding-off motif in the slow, affecting coda, but it seems an afterthought.

The Largo, under a now threatening sky, starts with slow walking, Ponomarenko and Thrussell each cordoned off by four members of the opposite sex. (This section kept reminding me of Emily’s funeral in Our Town.) Thrussell falls to the ground and Ponomarenko (bird or angel?), bourréeing overhead, revives him; later Adriana Suárez does the same for six men. Few of Morris’s intriguing thoughts are developed, however, and he doesn’t speak to the ménage à trois nature of the music, where the piano listens as the violin and cello converse or argue and sometimes starts arguments of its own. The concluding Presto finds everyone in a playful mood under bluish-red skies; motifs recur, and a scolding-with-arms-folded idea is introduced. The final tableau picks up on the Largo, with the men down and the women standing over them, one arm extended with hand warding off.

Is this all a parody of ballet? You might think so from the men’s costumes, puffy peach shirts and burgundy tights (the women wear burgundy cocktail dresses). It takes Ponomarenko and Thrussell to give the performance class and Ribeiro to make the comic moments look witty rather than silly. I also wonder about a piece set to Beethoven that doesn’t afford its seven couples much outlet for individual expression. I got to like it better by the fourth viewing, but it still seems more of an eddy.

Compared with SHARP side of DARK, Maelstrom is indeed a stroll around the park. Jorma Elo designed his own set, and the light (courtesy of Pierre Lavoie) from moving banks that include a Mother Ship–like circular creature (the Eternal Feminine?) and a low-hovering square (the Male Principle?) plus the gray flooring conjure the concrete playground of a dystopic future. You wouldn’t expect Bach to accompany this, but Elo uses selections from Dmitry Sitkovetsky’s affecting string-trio arrangement of the Goldberg Variations (the framing Arias and eight Variation sections: 1 + 2, 5 + 5, 13, 14, 15, 23, 26, and 30) to ground and counterpoint a movement that is as imaginative and articulated as Maelstrom’s is conventional and coy. Elo’s variations actually overflow Bach’s, beginning and ending outside the music, as if to say that even the Goldbergs aren’t big enough to contain him.

Elo’s theme is, like Bach’s, the way lines/lives join and unjoin. The dancers, in gray unitards, seem to be emerging out of the stage: there’s a recurrent squatting pose and some breakdance spinning, as well as hints of amphibian evolution. The relationships are by turns elegant and gymnastic, full of solicitude but never optimism. On opening night Boston Ballet II dancer Andrea Schermoly explored her empty space as if she were Eve; finally she lifted the square and discovered her Adam in new corps de ballet member Szabolcs Varga. Couples Sarah Lamb and Raul Salamanca, Karla Kovatch and Viktor Plotnikov, and Melanie Atkins and Jared Redick filled out the Aria with their own statements about men and women. Toward the end of Variation #5 (the music of which is repeated), Schermoly pushes Varga away and performs on her own, but after the music runs out, she goes into emotional collapse, whereupon Varga places a sustaining hand on her forehead and the slowish #13 begins, Elo’s pas de deux finding the pair on a more equal if still troubled footing. (It’s here that Schermoly conjures the illustration from Blake’s Milton where Milton enters Blake’s left foot in the form of a comet.) Lamb and Salamanca have the agitated #14, Kovatch and Plotnikov the adagio #15, which begins with the dancers on either side of a long, horizontal scrim and includes a section where Kovatch stands apart with her hands over her eyes while Plotnikov dances with another woman. The men, now bare-chested, get their solos in #26; the #30 Quodlibet finds all eight dancers hopping upstage in the squat step, but it’s a false cadence — as the music ends, Salamanca breaks away for a brief, anguished solo. And the actual ending is sadder still. Following the Aria da capo, Schermoly puts Varga’s left hand on her head, picking up his earlier gesture; he replaces it with her own hand and backs away. The movement is repeated; in the end she goes on alone, spotlit.

Nothing can add to this heartbreaking moment; as the corrective to Maelstrom, In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated should have followed Morris’s piece. Set to a kinetic, eardrum-tingling industrial score by Dutch composer Thom Willems, William Forsythe’s ballet has as its single prop a tiny cluster of gold cherries hanging in the middle, of course, but elevated just out of reach. His 9 Tantalos dancers, dressed in green shirts and green tights (the three men) or green leotards and sheer black tights (the six women), take their frustration out on one another in a X-rated version of Jerome Robbins’s choreography for West Side Story: it’s as brutal as Maelstrom is effete. Two women (opening night it was Sarah Lamb and April Ball) face off like gals with dibs on the same guy before Gaël Lambiotte taps Ball on the shoulder and with a basilisk look she retires while he goes on to dance with Lamb. You can cut the sexual tension with the proverbial knife as the six ladies maneuver for the attention of the three men; various couplings are essayed while the rest of the gang glare from the back and the wings. Think of it as a kind of sexual Olympics. The piece doesn’t conclude so much as stop, Lamb and Lambiotte once again at it center stage, Ball shadowing them off to the side.

Presentation at Boston Ballet continues to be an issue. All four musicians’ names are unconscionably (especially in view of their performances) omitted from the program; Tara Hench’s photo and bio are missing from the company section; the insert and the program diverge on the number of intermissions (there are two, not one); the running time is badly underestimated (it’s close to two and a half hours); and after 10 years they still can’t spell principal ballerina Pollyana Ribeiro’s name right. And someone should tell Rachel King that the Goldberg Variations were previously set not " by George Balanchine and the New York City Ballet in the ’60s " but by Jerome Robbins in 1971.

On stage, however, Wilder and Nissinen have matters firmly in hand. The newcomers — including soloists Melanie Atkins, Alexander Ritter, and Miao Zong — have raised the bar for the rest of the company. Last weekend the first casts mostly outdid the second, but everybody whom I saw a second time improved. Ponomarenko, Thrussell, and Ribeiro buoy Maelstrom, and as the fourth couple in the second cast of SHARP side of DARK Ponomarenko and Thrussell provide lyrical and emotional weight. Andrea Schermoly takes expressive enunciation to a new level in SHARP side of DARK; Boston Ballet could turn other companies green with envy by sending a tape of this performance and telling them she’s " only " a second-company member. In the same role Saturday afternoon Tara Hench seemed more contained, but by Saturday evening she had evolved into Schermoly’s counterpoint, autumn as opposed to spring. And if you’re wondering how far Boston Ballet has come over the past decade, just look at the men in Elo’s piece. The company gives In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated the rough justice it wants: Sarah Lamb is her usual razor-edge-of-emotion self; April Ball, cast against type, smolders with attitude; and I liked the way Miao Zong teeters on the edge of hysteria. So, one okay Mark Morris work; one 15-year-old William Forsythe wake-up call whose challenge the company largely meets; and one exquisitely performed world premiere by a choreographer who should become a regular visitor. And John Cranko’s sublime Onegin on the horizon. What’s not to like?

PHOTOS BY ERIC ANTONIOU

Issue Date: September 26 - October 3, 2002
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