Mastering the masterpieces

Boston Ballet takes on Balanchine, Tudor, and Tharp
By JEFFREY GANTZ  |  May 21, 2008

DARK ELEGIES A simple grace, here performed with simple grace.

Boston Ballet closed its 2007–2008 by revisiting some pieces and choreographers it hasn’t performed in the Mikko Nissinen era: George Balanchine’s Concerto Barocco, which it last did in 1988; Antony Tudor’s Dark Elegies, which it’s never done (the company’s last Tudor work was Jardin aux lilas, in 1990); and Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room, which it’s had on three programs, most recently in 1995. Memory can play tricks: I “recall” In the Upper Room as being a Big Bang of a dance, but I see that the two mid-1990s reviews I wrote expressed reservations about its ontology. Concerto Barocco, on the other hand, looks simpler and deeper every time I see it, and these performances — I caught all six — were tighter than the ones from 1988. Whether Boston Ballet’s Tudor style has improved I wouldn’t venture to say, but Dark Elegies was a tearjerking effort from a company that hasn’t done him in 18 years.

Concerto Barocco was conceived in New York but first saw the light of day in Rio de Janeiro, as an American Ballet Caravan presentation in 1941, on the same tour that birthed Ballet Imperial (now Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2). It was part of the very first New York City Ballet evening, on October 11, 1948, but it wasn’t till 1951 that the original fantastical costumes were dropped in favor of practice clothes, and only in the 1960s, as Nancy Goldner reminds us in Balanchine Variations (just out from the University Press of Florida), did the women exchange their black tunics for white. Now it’s hard to imagine the work any other way.

The music, Bach’s Double Violin Concerto, is so elemental, so obvious, it seems to be writing itself. So does Balanchine’s choreography. In the first-movement Vivace, two groups of four women each form the backdrop for two solo women who move in unison, in mirror image, in canon. It has the look of submission to the goddess — Diana rather than Venus. The Largo — an infinity of human feeling in just 50 bars — has hardly begun before one woman runs off and a man runs on to dance with the other in Balanchine’s alphabet of arabesques; they twine through the bridesmaid eight as if playing “In and Out the Window” and form a daisy chain like the dancers in the slow movement of Ballet Imperial. Toward the end of the movement, the second woman slides on, diagonally, the man runs off, the two women confer briefly (a warning?) in the same position with which the Largo started, and it begins again, the second woman leaving and the man coming back on. The concluding Allegro brings the backdrop forward, the two soloists growing dueling-passé competitive — over the man? — as well as complementary. Of the man we see nothing further.

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