Ever wonder how Swan Lake might have turned out if Prince Siegfried had run off with Black Swan Odile instead of White Swan Odette? You can find out this weekend and next at the Opera House, where Boston Ballet dancers Larissa Ponomarenko and Jeffrey Cirio conduct an intricate (and sometimes spoken) courtship, backed by ecstatic flights of male and female black swans and the surging strains of Tchaikovsky's B-flat-minor piano concerto, the one Van Cliburn made famous. It's all part of Boston Ballet's Elo Experience — which isn't just an experience but a major work of art.
SWAN LAKE FOR THE 21ST CENTURY The corps give Jeffrey Cirio a hand while Larissa Ponomarenko thinks about it.
Jorma Elo is the company's resident choreographer, and Elo Experience is devoted entirely to his work, but Boston Ballet artistic director Mikko Nissinen — a fellow Finn and long-time friend (they went to ballet school together in Helsinki) — decided he wanted to do more than just an evening of three or four pieces. So he commissioned Elo to create a world premiere that, as the program's "river," would flow past excerpts from previous Elo works. (You could also think of it as a necklace along which Elo jewels are strung.) Nissinen had a lot to choose from: Elo has choreographed for the major American companies (New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, San Francisco Ballet, Houston Ballet, etc.) and many in Europe (including a Midsummer Night's Dream for the Vienna State Opera). Elo Experience brings us, in order, Slice to Sharp (which he did for NYCB), Lost on Slow (Royal Danish Ballet), Plan to B (Boston Ballet), Double Evil (San Francisco Ballet), In on Blue (Boston Ballet), Lost by Last (Royal Ballet of Flanders), and Brake the Eyes (Boston Ballet).
The packed two-hour evening starts in silence and darkness, with Cirio, in black, entering stage left, pushing a light box to center stage. He does some robot and fish moves, as if wondering what form of life he is, jabs himself in the head, covers his eyes, moves past the light box, and knocks on what we perceive to be a door. Ponomarenko, also in black, comes out, goes back in, comes back out, circles him, takes his arm, and they tiptoe toward center stage. Whereupon the horns crash in with the big four-note descending phrase that begins the Tchaikovsky concerto and the back scrim rises to reveal the black swans, who pirouette, jeté, and frug. It's Swan Lake for the 21st century. Ponomarenko dances with the men before the music stops. "She likes moonlight," the chorus tells us. When the Slice to Sharp group dash on stage, it takes our couple a minute to realize they're not in this piece.
Tchaikovsky — for so the world premiere section seems to be called — is like an old movie serial (Flash Gordon, say), except that you're able to see the whole thing in one evening. While you're watching dancers clad in various subtle shades of gray and blue and brown and bronze and mustard zip through Elo's trademark deconstructions and communicate in his unique semaphore-like language (hands framing faces, squeezing necks, bouncing balls, flashing under armpits, fluttering in front of eyes), you're wondering what Ponomarenko and Cirio are going to do next. "Does she like sunshine or does she like moonlight," he wonders. "You exceeded the speed limit," the men tell him. "How fast was I going, officer," he replies. The swans form a chorus line as the concerto's majestic introduction returns. Cirio does a huge double tour and some coupé jeté turns, Ponomarenko throws in a few pas de chat, they bounce a ball (March Madness, anyone?), and Ponomarenko walks in circles while asking, "Does she like sunshine or moonlight?" The coda of the movement tries to start, keeps trying to start; we never get to hear it. (In fact, we're stuck in Tchaikovsky's first movement for the whole evening; we never hear the second or third.)
That's how Elo Experience goes, in stops and starts — it's as if the choreographer kept hitting the reset button. Slice to Sharp is set to Biber and Vivaldi, Lost on Slow to Vivaldi, Plan to B (a 13-minute piece that's performed in its entirety) to Biber, so we have Baroque music contrasting with the Tchaikovsky. And these Elo works are like a gloss on the premiere, in the same way that, in some productions of The Nutcracker, the second-act divertissements give Clara a glimpse of grown-up relationships. Meanwhile, this one shows signs of wear: Ponomarenko starts speaking in Russian instead of English, and she's getting what seems to be cell-phone calls from the universe. "Is she angry?", Cirio asks. "There's no way I can go any faster." He and Ponomarenko go back and forth over whether she likes sunshine or moonlight; "She got it wrong," he concludes. They leave the Tchaikovsky river to gambol in Lost on Slow; he bops her on the head and she falls into his arms, and it's intermission.
Well, sort of. As people start to file back to their seats, Ponomarenko and Cirio come out and start playing hide-and-seek among two light boxes, one of which Cirio climbs atop in order to survey the situation. The Tchaikovsky coda continues to stutter, and the conversation begins to as well, as Ponomarenko starts speaking in Russian. "Red two, green three, blue four," he says; "Red yes, green no, blue maybe," she replies. She tightropes while singing, "Fly me to the moon/Let me play among the stars." She conducts the corps in "We walk in snow together and slowly grow old."
And as they grow old, they continue on their magical mystery tour. The first part of Double Evil is set to Philip Glass's thundering Concerto Fantasy for Two Timpanists and Orchestra, but it's the second half, to contemporary Russian composer Vladimir Martynov's lushly romantic Come In!, that allows Kathleen Breen Combes and James Whiteside to embody Elo's less kinetic, less frenetic side, Breen Combes indulging in a tantalizingly slow développé before looking at the floor in dismay and turning into a clockwork doll. (You could see all of Elo Experience as the dream of The Nutcracker's Harlequin and Columbine, their yearning to be human.) At the end, Paulo Arrais is left behind in smoky red twilight; he does a solo that finishes in a gorgeous slow rond de jambe, then freezes, whereupon Ponomarenko runs on, whispers "moonlight" in his ear, and ushers him off.
The mood changes with In on Blue and Lost by Last, both of which have Vertigo-like music by Bernard Herrmann; we're lost and there's no last. Cirio keeps wondering who left the door open. He: "We always go the same place." She: "We always go to a different place." He: "We always go a different place." She: "We always go to the same place." The corps responds with "Fly me to the moon." The Tchaikovsky gets its longest run, Ponomarenko doing a reflective slow promenade to the wistful second subject. Then she's carried swimming over a prostrate Cirio, as if Kim Novak were swimming through Jimmy Stewart's dreams. And in Lost by Last, Rachel Cossar writhes like a sea anemone, as if Kim were calling to Jimmy from underwater.
Our couple grow more reproachful: "I was really very angry." "I remember very well." "You are always five minutes late." Then they move into one of the Mozart sections of Brake the Eyes, joining the regular dancers in that piece. There's no more Tchaikovsky. At the end, everyone comes on, and Ponomarenko, who's standing stage left, laughs and snaps her fingers. Everyone drops to the ground, leaving Cirio standing in the center, and slowly he too goes down.
Elo Experience is a difficult, hugely ambitious work that might remind you of filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard — you go to his movies over and over (as he intended) and you always find something new. This is a complex theater work. The original concept was to have musicians in the opera boxes playing for Plan to B, but in the end Elo decided that just one live selection would stick out, so all the music is taped. In addition to the light boxes on stage, three huge rectangular light screens line the sides and back, rising and falling, glowing yellow and purple and red and white; the red for Double Evil is the most dramatic. The chiaroscuro lighting is atmospheric to a fault; it's too bad you can't see the performers more clearly, since this is the best-danced piece I can recall in nearly 30 years of watching Boston Ballet.
Ponomarenko is the anchor, not only the Odile to Cirio's Siegfried but the Beatrice to his Dante, the most complete dancer, I would guess, that this company has ever had. The one thing she's rarely had in her 17-plus years in Boston is a partner she's seemed comfortable with, but though Cirio is much younger, they look like naturals, both adept at being children as well as adults. And Cirio — only a second soloist — is so easy in his body and so superb in his technique, you could be thinking of him as a Frank Sinatra even before everybody starts singing "Fly Me to the Moon." From Misa Kuranaga and Joseph Gatti in the opening duet of Sharp to Slice to James Whiteside's eye-popping floor exercise in Brake the Eyes, and with plenty in between, this is an Experience not to be missed, as Jorma Elo boldly goes where no choreographer has gone before.