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Ballet, big time
Mr B. in Boston

Twenty years after his death, George Balanchine is still considered the master choreographer of our times. This is no idle hype. The two works on Boston Ballet’s fall repertory program last week opened up once again the terrific possibilities of the classical enterprise. Audiences and dancers need Balanchine, not because he’s history but because he’s so far out.

Stars and Stripes (1958) and the fourth version of Mozartiana (1981) are worlds apart in style. S&S came at the peak of New York City Ballet’s pre-Lincoln Center years, when Balanchine could use Sousa marches and popular culture as confidently as he tackled the angular modernism of Stravinsky, Ives, and Webern. His last rethinking of Mozartiana came near the end of his life, when he was probably meditating on his own death. One ballet was big, formal, and extroverted. The other began with a prayer but assured us that ballet life would go on.

Mozartiana takes its title from the music, Tchaikovsky’s gloss on themes of Mozart, so the idea of continuity is embedded in the ballet from the start. It begins somberly, with a ballerina and four teenage dancers, all in black tutus. Balanchine loved playing games with scale, and even without a tall ballerina (originally Suzanne Farrell), the effect when the curtain goes up jars you out of any monolithic ideas you might have about what ballet dancers are supposed to look like. The contrast plays out a little later when the girls have "grown up" into four women. At the end of the ballet, the two generations combine into a miniature corps de ballet.

Besides making the point about how ballet survives, Mozartiana showcases three entirely different solo dancers. The implication is that among their particular accomplishments they span classicism’s range of decorum, wit, and mastery. The ballerina walks through the space, with prayerful gestures and gracious acknowledgment of her young companions, to the opening Preghiera (based on the hymn Ave Verum Corpus). When they leave, a young man in black, a sort of jester (Jared Redick in the first cast), dances a Gigue, with fast, rhythmically complicated steps that seem to ripple close to the ground except when he springs unexpectedly into the air.

After the four women dance a Menuet, there’s a phenomenal string of alternating variations for the ballerina and a partner. Guest artist Ethan Stiefel seemed to use the music like a trampoline for a whole variety of leaps and turning steps. Larissa Ponomarenko’s variations expanded the pointe work of the Preghiera into a refined virtuosity. They do a supported adagio after this and then are joined by the other man and the corps for a courtly finale.

Mozartiana celebrates what a ballet company can do on a small scale. Stars and Stripes is grand spectacle: three contingents of 12 dancers each, with its own leader, plus another solo couple. The fun is seeing how many ways Balanchine can turn the routines of a marching band into classical ballet behavior. Squadrons not only march in exact unison, they do massed entrechats, double tours, sexy battements, and a circle of grands jetés. It’s kitschy, all those guys in the military uniforms and the girls looking like drum majorettes with white gloves and feathers on their pillbox hats. But you can enjoy the takeoff while you marvel at the regiments’ inventive maneuvers. The corps at the Wang weren’t always precise in their unison; Balanchine’s New York City Ballet wasn’t either, always, but he dared them to be.

The scale suddenly shrinks for the Fourth Campaign (Liberty Bell and El Capitán), a vaudeville pas de deux. Saturday afternoon Ethan Stiefel strutted and showed off brilliantly, sparking Sarah Lamb to do the same. In the first cast, Pollyana Ribeiro slid through some of the military affectations as if afraid to overdo them. But she and newcomer Nelson Madrigal seemed on the way to an affable partnership.

Balanchine knew the difference between reverential seriousness and serious comedy. David Dawson’s The Grey Area comes from the post–William Forsythe school of European glitzy fatalism. The five dancers dressed in powder-blue bottoms and filmy, virtually topless tops seem lost in an immense space with a white void on one side, pitch blackness on the other. Lights fade partly in, then mostly out. The "sound design" (by Niels Lanz) consists of sustained discords and thunder. The dancers run and yearn and wrap themselves around each other. They splay their legs wide, they swivel like broken compasses, the picture of directionless angst.

Issue Date: October 31 - November 6, 2003
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