One hundred years after Finland achieved independence from the Russian Republic, the Boston Ballet opened its run of the all-Finnish “Obsidian Tear,” based on works by Sibelius and Esa-Pekka Salonen.
Sibelius’s Finlandia, a symphonic poem depicting different foundational stories, provided a perfect start at the Boston Opera House Friday night, as guest conductor Daniel Stewart’s enthusiasm and precision made for an engaging interpretation. Thanks, apparently to subtle amplification, the sounds of woodwinds and brass soared from the pit to the back of the opera house easily, though masking the violins at brief moments. This orchestral overture with would have flourished with ballet accompaniment, particularly when considering the structure of the piece, which breaks into six different sections of stories and a prelude: The Song of Väinämöinen, The Finns are Baptized by Bishop Henry, Duke John in the Castle of Turku, The Finns in the Thirty Years’ War, The Great Hate, and Finland Awakens.
Wayne McGregor’s ballet Obsidian Tear, based on two pieces by Salonen, made its North American debut in a co-production with The Royal Ballet. The composer based Lachen verlernt (or “Laughing Unlearnt”), a chaconne for solo violin, on a scene in Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire in which the narrator tells Pierrot, her “soul’s veterinarian,” that she has unlearned how to laugh. Asking a downcast clown to teach a seemingly cheerful entity to laugh again is a dark metaphor in which Salonen evoked an imagined dark side to his dedicatee, violinist Cho-Liang.
In contrast to the solo violin, Obsidian Tear began with two dancers, one in a red garment and another in black. Movement began before the violin entered, creating a stark, tense atmosphere to match the uncertainty of the opening in Lachen verlernt. Although there may have been a loose narrative to Obsidian Tear, the first section felt more like a rhapsodic interaction between two moving parts, focusing on shapes and gestures rather than telling a story. True to Schoenberg, the scene featured only two characters (in Obsidian Tear’s case, two male dancers), demonstrating both a stark reality and then displaying a softer intimacy. Violinist Christine Vitale gave a stunning performance. With each variation of the chaconne, Vitale offered refinement and restraint, key for capturing the piece’s starkness.
The second section of Obsidian Tear came from Salonen’s Nyx, a dreamy tone poem inspired by the Greek goddess. Salonen wrote, “Nyx seems to take a somewhat new direction from my earlier orchestral music: there are many very delicate and light textures, chiaroscuro instead of details bathing in clear sunlight. I guess this is the symptomatic of growing older as we realize there are no simple truths, no pure blacks and whites but an endless variety of half shades.” Nyx provided an ethereal symphonic cloud that felt quite ripe for choreography.
In the larger work, two men became an ensemble of nine, each moving in his own patterns with different spatial awareness, all but one dressed in black designed outfits. Fashion Director Katie Schillingford is among the first to display fashion pieces rather than costumes on ballet dancers, creating a new standard for the modern dance aesthetic.
The narrative nature of the second section of Obsidian Tear heightened considerably, featuring the sacrifice of the male dancer in a red garment, who fell off the ledge of the minimalist scenery. In the ensuing turmoil, dancers retched, overwhelmed by the murderous act. At the end, the surviving member of the original pair in Lahen verlernt threw himself off the ledge—although perplexingly, it seemed more akin to an accidental fall.
Boston Ballet described Obsidian Tear as “raw and powerful,” playing on basic, uncomfortable human truths such as unknowability. “It expresses the extremity of what happens inside the body when we feel intense emotional suffering, the sensation of something tearing and releasing fluid,” McGregor writes. He also notes that the volcanic rock obsidian tends to break into sharp shards, inspiring the anxious thought that it can be used as a weapon. Obsidian Tear left a disconcerted, disturbed feeling behind, ghosting the feeling of a rough edge to the skin.
Nothing could contrast from Obsidian Tear quite so exquisitely as the world premiere of a dance component to Sibelius’s Symphony No. 5, which I admittedly did not feel enthusiastic about until it played out in front of me. So often, a symphony set to dance can be trite and will quickly transform a structured, sensible work into a mismatched, narrative mess. However, resident choreographer Jorma Elo did not disappoint. Using the entire company (a welcome contrast to Obsidian Tear, which only featured men), Elo’s dance treated Sibelius’s Symphony with eloquence and respect.
Although Stewart led a predictable but clean performance of the texturally lush symphony, Elo’s fantastical dance found cause to interpolate every beloved aspect of romantic ballet. Deployed in two larger groups, three duets, and one soloist, dancers moved in their own separate ways, yet each individual’s chemistry felt natural and light. At the conclusion, after each couple leapt, the men carried their female partner high upon their shoulders, bringing the piece to an effervescent close.
Boston Ballet’s Obsidian Tear is absolutely worth the trip to Boston Opera House, with an introverted human speculation and a romantic spectacle – and a fascinatingly vibrant conductor. Obsidian Tear continues through November 12th.
Rachael Fuller studied piano and music theory at Kent State University in Ohio.