Theme and variations

By JEFFREY GANTZ  |  May 13, 2010

ANOTHER SIGN OF BOSTON BALLET’S SUCCESS has been the regular presence of New York Times dance critic Alastair Macaulay. He was in London during the company’s run of Coppélia last month, but he came for the three weekend performances of “Ultimate Balanchine,” and his largely favorable review appeared in Monday’s Times.

What I got from the weekend was an even greater appreciation of the themes that run through this program. There’s the theme of beginnings. Apollo in his exploratory solos seems to be creating the very concept of movement, and how movement could become dance. The first Theme couple in Four T’s start by pointing and then flexing a foot; positioned on opposite sides of the stage, the principals in Theme and Variations start by exchanging those fundamental croisé, effacé, and écarté positions that the ballerina will repeat, en developpé, in variation #8. There’s also the theme of oppositions: mime versus poetry in Apollo, ballet versus modern dance in Four T’s, the group versus the individual in all those daisy chains, and, always, men versus women.

Of the dancers I saw on Saturday and Sunday, John Lam confirmed the powerful impression he’d made opening night in the Melancholic section of Four T’s, but Jeffrey Cirio was an interesting alternative: not as big or light, but more vulnerable and sensible of his character’s limits. Rie Ichikawa was more careful than carefree in Sanguinic, but she fed off the effervescence of James Whiteside, whom Macaulay in his review called “the company’s outstanding male dancer.” It was Melissa Hough, Saturday evening, who added weight and mystery to the exuberance that Erica Cornejo had shown opening night. Jaime Diaz followed Carlos Molina in Phlegmatic, but — again Saturday evening — it was Pavel Gurevich who burst out from behind his quartet of women like a man breaking out of prison. Tiffany Hedman and Lia Cirio followed Kathleen Breen Combes in Choleric; neither was as dangerous or explosive.

The second Apollo cast, with Yury Yanowsky plus Hough, Cornejo, and Kuranaga, was overall more satisfying than the first. Macaulay deemed Yanowsky’s Saturday-afternoon performance “too stern and artful”; he liked him better on Sunday. I would have called Yanowsky intense, and also boyish in the way he puts his ear to his long-necked lute, as if it were a cherished toy, and in the Gene Kelly way he takes charge of the space around him. Hough’s Terpsichore was as weighted and voluptuously indomitable as her Sanguinic, but some tenderness in her relationship with Apollo was missing. Cornejo’s Calliope had her usual zip; Kuranaga was a subtle, sympathetic Polyhymnia.

Neither of the alternatives to Kuranaga and Whiteside in Theme and Variations was as gratifying as those two had been opening night. Cornejo was too mercurial, Cirio was too stolid, and both Molina and Nelson Madrigal wore out in the demanding male role. It’s amazing how imperial and tall and Russian Kuranaga looks when the curtain rises; she has some of (currently injured) company principal Larissa Ponomarenko’s nuance.

Throughout, the corps and the orchestra were of a piece: not openly virtuosic, not hard-edged, not drill-sergeant precise, but ample, accomplished, gracious, and suggestive — Balanchine (and Hindemith, Stravinsky, and Tchaikovsky) with a human face. (And, on Sunday, a woman’s face in front of the orchestra: assistant conductor Geneviève LeClair leading an impeccable performance of Theme and Variations.) These three ballets are indeed “Ultimate Balanchine,” and if, even at NYCB, no Balanchine production is “Ultimate,” you could fairly label this one — which does run through the weekend — “Unmissable.”

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