Theme and variations

By JEFFREY GANTZ  |  May 13, 2010

Theme and Variations is set to the fourth movement of Tchaikovsky’s Suite No. 3 — as long as the first three movements put together, this finale comprises a theme and 12 variations, the last one yet another of the composer’s imperial polonaises. Arlene Croce used to compare Balanchine’s interpretation to The Sleeping Beauty in the way it develops out of basic elements, and it is a kind of mini story ballet, with sumptuous tutus and gauzy curtains framing the Mariinsky-blue backdrop and a huge chandelier. The lead couple — Misa Kuranaga and James Whiteside last night — dance opposite each other in the theme, but they don’t meet again till variation #10, a pas de deux with violin cantilena. In between, Kuranaga flashes through some gargouillades (#2), Whiteside answers with big, pellucid ronds de jambe (#6), there’s a fugue (#5), a spooky woodwind chorale (#7), and a cor anglais–haunted threnody (#8) in which the eight corps women form a daisy chain and Kuranaga, on pointe, describes three stages of développé: croisé, effacé, ecarté — it’s as if Balanchine were faceting a precious stone. Kuranaga and Whiteside are royally steady in the supported balances of the pas de deux, and the big diagonal that forms out of the preliminary polonaises (more geometry from Mr. B) is everything you could hope for.

What you could hope for as this production develops is a sharper attack, with fewer rounded edges, and more coiled energy — too much is flying off into the wings. And more attitude. The orchestra, under Boston Ballet music director Jonathan McPhee, maintains a discreet low profile in the Hindemith and Stravinsky but lets loose, to glorious effect, in the woodwind-saturated Tchaikovsky.

POSTSCRIPT THURSDAY MAY 13 Last night, Boston Ballet presented “Next Generation,” a spring showcase for the Boston Ballet School’s pre-professional students. Such celebrations in the studio aren’t uncommon, but this one was in the Opera House, with live music from the New England Conservatory Youth Symphony, and the participation of the company’s junior troupe, Boston Ballet II. It was a fitting gesture from what is — as the company’s executive director, Barry Hughson, reminded the close-to-full house in a brief pre-curtain speech — the largest ballet school in North America.

What followed did justice to that status, both in content and in execution. By way of an overture, Boston Ballet associate conductor Mark Churchill led the NEC players in a gently illuminated rendition of Johann Strauss’s Unter Donner und Blitzen (“Thunder and Lightning”) polka. Then the dancing began with George Balanchine’s four-minute Scherzo à la russe, which he choreographed for the 1972 Stravinsky Festival. You could see it as an affectionate gloss on Le sacre du printemps, the curtain rising on two principal women and a female corps of 16 all costumed in a kind of Russian nightgown, and frolicking as if the Sacre storyline, with its sacrifice of the chosen maiden, were nothing but a bad dream. Danyla Bezerra and Melanie Riffee led the festivities with a fresh, coltish energy, and the corps evinced the sly exuberance that you’d expect from a school directed by former New York City Ballet principal Margaret Tracey. Like Stravinsky’s 1925 score (here given a good-humored, folkish reading by Churchill and company), the ballet seems to end in mid gesture — as if promising more to come.

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