Surely Boston Ballet’s production of John Neumeier’s choreography to Mahler Third Symphony will be remembered as a significant milestone in the company’s 52-year-history. The Opera House was full, and the orchestra of 80 players and 23 choristers overflowed the pit into the parterre boxes.
This was not a story ballet with colorful costumes and sets. Played against black drops and a color-morphing cyclorama, the staging left the focus entirely on the large and expert contingent of dancers, making manifest Neumeier’s clear love of the Mahler score and his extremely musical transformation of sound into movement.
As a music guy rather than a dance critic, I found myself wondering whether Mahler would approve. Stravinsky had been persuaded by generous royalties to go along with Disney’s cartoon take on The Rite of Spring, though after the royalties stopped coming in, he expressed disdain. Like Amilcare Ponchielli, who was not around to object when Disney hippo-graphed “Dance of the Hours,” Mahler was long gone when a modern choreographer appropriated his score. Of course there was a difference; Mahler had never expected his great work to be hyper-illustrated with writhing bods.
Whether the surprisingly nubile ballet audience came for the 29-minute first movement featuring 29 topless male dancers under vertical posing lights with a slightly off-putting pas de pecs and abs, I cannot say. I was there mostly to see what damage or improvement had been done to the score.
In the 2,500 seat vaudeville palace, sound does not blend, but it carries with compensating clarity and with sufficient amplitude. Thus, conductor Jonathan McPhee’s forces were clearly exposed. The sound was hardly sumptuous and the solos generally no more than adequate. The concertmaster produced a scrawny tone in the big house, whereas the principal cellist Ron Lowry evinced great warmth, and the viola section soloed with distinction. Alto Sarah Pelletier (who looked the classic diva in her curtain call) projected every moving word of “Oh, Mensch….” with a declamatory conviction that must have floated majestically to the hall’s nether reaches, and the “Bim bams” of the women of the New World Chorale pealed out to great effect, and what a pleasure it was to be in a commercial theater without having to endure over-amplified, heavily boosted sound. Instruments and the soloist’s voice came from distinct locations in contrast with the public address system which boomed unintelligibly. If any amplification was being used, it must have been directed at tough locations such as under the balcony overhangs. McPhee kept things moving and got the dancers in an out of their stations on time. Was this a reflective and searching musical performance for the ages? Hardly, but it really got the job done in a manner for which we should be grateful.
For one somewhat indifferent to taking pleasure from prancing unitards, I nevertheless kept my eyes wide open for the entire one and one half–plus-hours. The 1975 choreography was as much a period piece as that of Marius Alphonse Petipa or Twyla Tharp would have been in other eras. And it was redolent not only of both of the aforementioned, but also of Living Theater at the barricades in its sculptural molding of primeval human clay and Martha Graham as seen in awkward asymmetries and akimbo limbs. We also caught glances of Theda Bara in silent full movie posturing (though without the period dress) and maybe even some Busby Berkeley in the fractalating human fireworks. The ubiquitous principal dancer Lasha Khozashvili seemed to embody the composer as an annoyed, glaring puppet-master who lost the girl at the end. Ultimately, whether enlivening Mahler’s rustic dances as sylvan classical ballet, or shaping his own brand of emphatic modern stagecraft to the composer’s loungers of woe, Neumeier, responded to every lyrical moment with tremendous specificity and respect to the score, renaming the composer’s movements as “Yesterday”, “Summer”, “Autumn”, “Night,” “Angel,” and “What Love tells me,” giving us vivid pictures of each.
In this Gesamantkunst, the choreographer also designed the costumes and the lighting. If the color-coded outfits were meant to depict romantic and social hierarchies, they did so only in the vaguest of terms. The lighting, on the other hand contributed tremendously to the delineation of mood—it was a star. According to the Lighting design replicator, Ralk Merkel, there were 125 cues. Much of the work in recreating the original scheme involved recoloring for the current HIR instruments which maintain their hues as they dim unlike the earlier tungsten lighting Neumeier painted the dancers’ anatomies with revealing pools of downlight during the early movements, using subtle beams of front-lighting merely for coloration. Only in the last two movements did brilliant front-lighting shine forth.
Settings were defined by position of the velvet backdrop and legs. In the second act the backdrop rose to reveal the color-morphing white backdrop which also served to silhouette the dancers at times. At times only the bottom eight feet of the white backrop were exposed—at other times its entirely. Scene V dramatically saw the black legs also rise to reveal translucent white wing drapes.
With over 50 dancers moving about in a tremendous variety of poses, patterns, and steps, words cannot suffice. Therefore we append more excellent production shots to complete our evocation of a tremendous night of musical theater.