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Boston Ballet at the Pillow

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Boston Ballet closed the 2019 Summer Season at Jacob’s Pillow this weekend with riveting performances of two almost unknown works by George Balachine’s youthful comrade Leonid Yakobson, four selections from William Forsythe’s jubilant Playlist (EP), and Jorma Elo’s 2015 chamber work danced to live renditions of Bach’s first and second cello suites.

Maura Keefe’s program essay detailed the early development of the Boston Ballet under the leadership of New Englander E. Virginia Williams and emphasized the predecessor company’s connections to New York City and the Berkshires after 1958. While in NYC, Williams studied with George Balanchine, and he occasionally drew from her company for new dancers. By 1963, her New England Civic Ballet became Boston Ballet through a Ford Foundation grant (received through the assistance of Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein). Kirstein (1907-1996) graduated from the Berkshire School and Harvard, founded the Hound & Horn literary quarterly and the School of American Ballet in Hartford, and served as an assistant for  Robert Posey, Monuments Man for General George S. Patton’s U.S. Third Army during WWII. More than any other person, it is Kirstein we have to thank for luring Balanchine to America and changing the direction of American ballet.

In 1962, Ted Shawn invited the Boston Ballet to debut at Jacob’s Pillow, and several other visits followed, including a rare two-week extended engagement during Shawn’s last season. This weekend marked the company’s return to the Pillow after a 15-year hiatus, and one of the central works on the program, Leonid Yakobson’s Pas de Quatre for four (escaped?) pale sylphides, used the natural setting of the hall by opening the back wall completely and lighting the forest glade. The sylphs remained linked together for the entire first movement, recalling the four baby swans of Swan Lake, farandoles from Les Sylphides and Giselle, and gentle human knots made famous through the classical choreography of Marius Petipa. That strange but alluring work premiered in the Soviet Union in 1971; it was followed by the first four parts from the same choreographer’s eight-part neo-classical Rodin (inspired by Rodin’s sculptures held in Leningrad: “The Eternal Spring,” “The Kiss,” “The Eternal Idol,” and “Minotaur and Nymph” and accompanied by a Soviet orchestral recording of works by Debussy and Berg). The final movement, in which a hulking minotaur and tiny nymph come to life, was danced with passion and fervor by Chisako Oga and Lasha Khozashvili. The house fairly shook with emotion as the terrifying minotaur loomed over and tossed around his nymph to the Intermezzo from Berg’s Wozzeck. This might be what late-20th -century ballet might have become, if not for Balanchine’s escape to America.

The sold-out crowd in the historic Ted Shawn Theater entered to recorded music and a darkened stage, but they soon came under the spell of cellist Sergey Antonov (1983-), sitting downstage left, under a lone spotlight. Born in Moscow to a Moscow Conservatory cello teacher and a Bolshoi Symphony Orchestra cellist, Antonov studied with Rostropovich and was one of the youngest cellists ever to win a gold prize at the International Tchaikovsky Competition (2007). A frequent guest of the Rockport and Newport music festivals, he holds an Artist Diploma from Longy and performs as a recitalist (BMInt reviews HERE and HERE), concerto soloist, and chamber musician.

Playing from memory and always visible on the stage, Antonov produced warm, vibrant tone and impeccable intonation which paired perfectly with Elo’s series of solos, duets, trios, and ensemble movements for five male and five female dancers. Excerpts can be seen HERE and HERE

Jorma Elo trained professionally at the Finnish National Ballet and danced with the groundbreaking Nederlands Dance Theater from 1990-2005, when he was appointed Resident Choreographer of Boston Ballet. He has created many world premieres for Boston, including Carmen, Le Sacre du Printemps, Plan to B, and his Bach Cello Suites (world premiere April 30, 2015 at the Boston Opera House). He has collaborated with living composers such Anthony Turnage (Hubbard Street Dance/Chicago Symphony, 2007) and developed full length ballets for the Vienna State Opera Ballet. Elo broke new ground with his lyrical, episodic Bach Cello Suites, which weaves together beautiful still poses and lifts with complex wave-like movements. The costuming is simple, with the ladies in black leotards with straps of bright blue, red, and lavender, and the men in black t-shirts and tights. The movement paired intimately with the nuances of Antonov’s playing, bringing to life Balanchine’s maxim, “Dancing is music made visible.”

Paulo Arrais and Lia Cirio in Bach Cello Suites (file photo)

In 2016, Finnish-born artistic director Mikko Nissinen invited master choreographer William Forsythe to accept a five-year residency with Boston Ballet, while serving as a Professor of Dance at USC. After working in Europe for forty years (with notable tenures as Resident Choreographer for the Stuttgart Ballet from 1976-1984 and director of the Ballet Frankfurt from 1984-2004), the American-born Forsythe came back home, and created some of his most stunning works to popular soundtracks. The Boston Ballet has presented Artifact (created during 1984, his first year with the Frankfurt Ballet), Blake Works I (2016), Pas/Parts 2018, and “Sha La La Says I Love You” (2019), one of the six track of Playlist (EP) this weekend. Both the choreographer and costume designer for this suite of dances, Forsythe commented, “Ballet is always about recombination. If you’d just rigorously recombine, you’ll have all the funk you need. I’m thinking about the art form, and I love it so much I want it to survive in some capacity, and I think all this is an interesting survival mode.”

The first large group number, a thrilling up-tempo work for 12 male dancers in vibrant blue and pink, combined non-stop classical ballet moves with the pumping beats of Berklee graduate Peven Everett’s “Surely Shorty.” Chyrstyn Fentroy and Desean Taber’s humorous and quirky pas de deux on Khalid’s 2017 pop R&B hit “Location” brought forth enthusiastic laughter and applause, followed by a movement for six female dancers to the first part of Abra’s 2016 dance/electronic extended play single “Vegas.” The finale, set to 2015 “Impossible” by Lion Babe and Jax Jones, brought forth a fine ovation. This song also has Boston ties: Lion Babe is an American R&B duo based in New York City consisting of New School graduate Jillian Hervey (daughter of Vanessa Williams) and record producer Lucas Goodman. They first connected at a party at Northeastern, where Goodman was majoring in Music Production, and have gone on to record neo-soul and alternative R&B EPs while collaborating with Daniel Glover and Pharrell Williams.

Boston Ballet will present more works by Forsythe this season in Boston, as his In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated will presented during their Feb. 27-Mar. 8 set, and his Artifact Suite will feature selections from Artifact during their May 8-29 set.: How about this: Boston Ballet will offer more works by Forsythe this season in Boston, as his In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated will be presented as part of their Feb. 27-Mar. 8 program, and his Artifact Suite will feature selections from Artifact as part of their May 8-29 program.

Laura Prichard teaches throughout the Boston area as a certified K-12 teacher of music/dance/art, as a theater pianist (Winchester Cooperative Theater), and at the university level (Harvard Libraries, Bunker Hill CC, and formerly at Northeastern and UMass). She was the Assistant Director for the Grammy Award-winning San Francisco Symphony Chorus from 1995-2003, under Vance George.

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