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.
2 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]
Comment by Bogen — October 26, 2015 at 9:59 am
just saw this review.
Music was not (or should not be) the reason for visiting the opera house. It may not be so respectful to expect much from or comment harshly on secondary provincial orchestra performance. Choreography was the selling point as this is the fourth time Mahler 3 serves as ballet music. The popularity difference among his works faithfully reflects the disappointing truth that people in general don’t understand his works, which are actually not the most difficult works to perceive visually or emotionally. Are 3 and 7 more difficult to understand than 5? Not to my ears and heart. The point of this ramble is to prelude a complaint of the choreography, which turned out to be huge disappointment and proved my theory right.
Neumeier must have liked Mahler. He may know what his dance is about, but it appears he does not know what the music is about. I am not getting into the business of comparing the titles. The choreography was indifferent to the music. Often, when there was a intro of a new music phrase or character, there was no corresponding change in either dancers, costume, lighting or even dancing movements. Not to be confused, there were different shifts of dancers and their dancing style alternated. But it was like re-telling (modern European invention) the story and arbitrarily regrouping the sound tracks. When the music dynamics swings wide, if it is not physically possible to bring in new dancers or new moves, it is always possible to use lighting. The longest and most dynamic movement, the 1st, saw very static lighting. Very unimaginative and under-sophisticated by the 70s standard. This gentle criticism is based on the assumption that one can call the plain background a style. One can understand, to make a low cost production, everything should be saved. But, I think, w/o much additional cost, sth can be done to match some of Mahler’s jewish melodies, countryside melodies and children’s melodies, which are so essential to him (which may not be pleasing). I would say they probably understand the 3rd movement best. Compared with other movements, esp. the first 2, it was much better rendered in every way. The intermission-like trio dance before the 4th was not I wanted. I did not like the idea. And the female dancer made me feel sth unnatural.
The brass section sitting over the left side of the pit was a distraction, both appearance and sound. Perhaps the pit was too small and shallow. But I’d try to find a better solution.
Comment by Thorsten — October 31, 2015 at 10:09 pm
RSS feed for comments on this post.
Sorry, this comment forum is now closed.