KISS OF THE VAMPIRE Boston Ballet's "Play with Fire" brought back Jirí Kylián's Bella Figura, which requires all the dancers to go topless.
Choreographers in America rarely get to rethink and revise their work. In 2002, when Jorma Elo was invited to Boston Ballet by his fellow Finn, company director Mikko Nissinen, to create what became SHARP side of DARK,
it was Elo's first work for a major ballet company. He doubled as choreographer and as set and costume designer. He used Bach's Goldberg Variations
. He was not starting small.
At the time, I took in the huge ring of lights floating above the performers and the grindingly mechanistic dancing and sniped in my notes "the sad story of a failed oil change." The set for 2012's revision of that work, Sharper Side of Dark, still calls to mind Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
SharperSide of Dark retains many of the signatures Elo has repeated throughout his years as Boston Ballet's resident choreographer: puppet-like, stuttering motions of the limbs and head; fragmentary b-boying; and wound-up multiple turns sur la terre or en l'air that fall into traveling steps, disguising the fact that the dancers never have to stop in clean positions. In Sharper, Elo's choreographic maturity is displayed through romantic partnering where lifts — especially ones with the woman raised just a few feet off the floor — unfurl in ways you didn't see coming.
As far as I could determine, the only dancer who performed in the world premiere of SHARPside of DARK in 2002 and also appeared in this year's iteration was Sabi Varga, back when he was a corps de ballet member still using his Hungarian first name, Szabolcs. Today's Boston Ballet, especially its younger dancers, have whetted their technique on Elo's off-kilter, extreme style. Unlike a decade ago, they have no problems whatsoever keeping up.
In planning the current "Play with Fire" program at the Opera House (through March 11), Nissinen must have presumed Jirí Kylián's 1995 Bella Figura (first performed by Boston Ballet last season) would be a good companion piece to the revised Elo. It isn't. Kylián's work makes Elo's look like a spinoff. Where Elo designs brutalist chandeliers, Kylián (working as his own set designer) floats transparent coffins inhabited by naked human mannequins overhead and then, at the close of the piece, lights twin fireplaces. Whereas a male dancer like James Whiteside is brawny with his shirt off in Sharper Side of Dark, Kylián requires all the women and men in Bella Figura to go topless.
Photos: Boston Ballet's 'Play With Fire'
Kylián's movement is less fussy and more organic than Elo's, and full of witty references from figure skating glides to a vampire bite. Heading the cast of Bella Figura Saturday night, Rie Ichikawa was the beleaguered woman fighting her way out of the clutches of the curtains. I was also impressed with Sarah Wroth, who seemed to understand that not every motion required equal intensity. Her performance rode a humane undercurrent.
Christopher Bruce's 1991 Rooster pays tribute to the Rolling Stones by way of a knee-knocking Elvis Presley. Rooster features neck-bobbling cocks-of-the-walk — hey, Mick Jagger has been called worse-— and is illustrated with games the audience can "watch the children play."
Bostonians saw Rooster danced by Hubbard Street Dance Chicago in 2004. Hubbard Street danced it better, with more swagger and more joy. At Boston Ballet, what should come across as a youth anthem felt stale. Nonetheless, it was worth seeing Rooster for Whitney Jensen twirling her long blonde hair in "Ruby Tuesday," dancing like she was free-associating in choreography that's older than she is. ^