" Sooner or later, the stage is flooded with women, " Arlene Croce wrote of George Balanchine’s Ballo della Regina. " A streaking cataract named Merrill Ashley holds the whole thing together. " I’m in Boston Ballet’s Grand Studio, which is flooded with women rehearsing Ballo. The snow outside is coming down like a cataract, and former New York City Ballet principal Ashley, who’s conducting the rehearsal, looks as if she could still streak through the 15-minute piece that Balanchine created for her 25 years ago. Set to music from Verdi’s Don Carlos, Ballo opens the Balanchine bill that Boston Ballet will be bringing to the Wang Theatre starting next Thursday; it will be followed by the Stravinsky pair of Monumentum pro Gesualdo and Movements for Piano and Orchestra, both from the early ’60s, and then the Prokofiev-scored Prodigal Son, which premiered in 1929, Balanchine’s last work for Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes.
It’s a challenging program. Of Ballo and its contemporary, Kammermusik No. 2, Suzanne Farrell writes in her autobiography, Holding On to the Air, " Between them they contained more steps, turns, complex designs, and witty angles than could be found in a lifetime of work by most other dancemakers. " That was appropriate for Ashley because as she pointed out at a Boston Ballet DanceTalk earlier in the week, " One of the things I liked was moving quickly, and that became one of my hallmarks. Balanchine showed off what I could do best, and moving at high speed is what Ballo is all about. "
In rehearsal, Ashley’s mind is still moving quickly: she seems to know every dancer by name, and when the 12 members of Ballo’s corps go through Balanchine’s " complex designs, " she catches every little thing that doesn’t look just right: " You have to turn out as much as you can so we see the change in direction. Otherwise it seems that nothing much happens. " Every minute or so she jumps out of her chair to demonstrate, singing the music and reciting the steps as she dances: " Tombé, coupé, pas de chat, pas de chat, and run. "
The score for Ballo della Regina is the ballet music that Verdi wrote for the Paris Opéra premiere of Don Carlos in 1867; it marks the moment when Princess Eboli, who’s disguised as Elisabeth of Valois, is revealed as " La Peregrina, " the precious pearl. Ashley was Balanchine’s pearl, but Ballo is also a subtle commentary on Don Carlos: whereas Elisabeth’s husband, King Philip II of Spain, has restricted her to walking in a convent cloister, Balanchine’s women run virtuosic riot.
Nothing could be more contained, on the other hand, than Monumentum pro Gesualdo and Movements for Piano and Orchestra, both set to short (eight and a half minutes each) works by Balanchine’s close friend Igor Stravinsky, and since 1966 always performed together. Monumentum was Stravinsky’s tribute to the Mannerist composer Carlo Gesualdo, whose chromatic harmony was far ahead of its time; Movements, in Stravinsky’s own words, " explore new harmonic regions, some of them more complex than in any of my previous music. " Balanchine choreographed Monumentum for Diana Adams and Conrad Ludlow in 1960; the 1963 Movements was also intended for Adams, but when less than a week before the premiere she discovered she was pregnant, Jacques d’Amboise persuaded Mr. B to cast 17-year-old Suzanne Farrell in her place. " There were enough steps to fill a four-act Swan Lake, " Farrell recalls, " only they seemed to be danced backward and upside down. "
Prodigal Son, which tells the familiar story from St. Luke, was revived in 1950 for New York City Ballet, with Maria Tallchief as the Siren and Jerome Robbins in the title role. Edward Villella became the most famous Prodigal; there’s also a Balanchine Library video with Mikhail Baryshnikov. It’s not my favorite Balanchine, but as Arlene Croce wrote a month after his death, in 1983, " A few nights ago, when Concerto Barocco was put on in place of Ballo della Regina, I felt a qualm. What if we should never see dear little Ballo again. Who cares if it isn’t great? The greatest Balanchine ballet is the one you happen to be watching. "
Boston Ballet presents " All Balanchine " March 27 through April 6 at the Wang Theatre, 270 Tremont Street in the Theater District. Tickets are $26 to $82; call (800) 447-7400.