Saturday, June 28, 2014

Boston Ballet's Return to Gotham

Boston Ballet is performing at the Koch Theater this week, the company's welcome return to New York after a very long time. The program on Thursday included The Second Detail by William Forsythe, Resonance by José Martinez, and Cacti by Alexander Ekman.

The Second Detail. Photo: Gene Schiavone
The recent news that William Forsythe will leave his company to teach in California and perhaps pay more attention to his classical repertory in various companies shadowed my viewing of The Second Detail (1991). The operative word here is not "the," as spelled out in a downstage sign, but "cool"—as in Forsythe's lighting design of white fluorescent light, iceberg-hued leotards designed by Yumiko Takeshima and Issey Miyake, and the dancers' louche attitude between razor-sharp ballet phrases, as if they were in rehearsal. It's a rhythm of taut and relaxed that lends pace and respiration. The traditional structure of ballet is shaken up, but a profound affection for the vocabulary still resonates—posés with hyperextended ribcages, the encouragement of showy multiple pirouettes, leg extensions and leaps pushed to extremes. An upstage line of minimal stools grounds the stage (also designed by Forsythe) and serves as seating for performers, who rest, and at times gesture. 

The women get the meaty sections, spinning like dervishes on pointe. I watched Misa Kuranaga perform two revolutions, looked away; and when I looked back a moment later, she was still finishing what must have been six revolutions. She has the right approach to Forsythe's style—without affectation, which can happen with certain dancers; fluid, technically astonishing (a leg afloat to the side, serene and unwavering). Thom Willems' score—electronic keyboard evoking a pipe organ—provided little structure, yet some of the dancers' moves seemed to align precisely with specific notes. A woman in a dress of white sheaves signalled the finale's onset; the work ended when a man kicked over "The." End!

Ji Young Chae and Patrick Yocum in Resonance.
Photo: Rosalie O'Connor

Forsythe has influenced an entire generation of choreographers, including, apparently, José Martinez, who choreographed Resonance. This ambitious work, in shades of pewter and blue, features a set of rolling grey panels that reworked the stage space every few minutes. Two pianists play Liszt (one at first hides behind a panel), an odd and at times awkward musical choice that can be melodramatic and rhythmically unsupportive. One group of women, led by Lia Cirio, wears flared navy sundresses; the other (by Dusty Button), camisole leotards. 

John Cuff's pale, silvery moonlighting frequently features dancers' silhouettes framed on the  panels. The ever-shifting set creates a feeling of unease and provides visual variety, but proved distracting at times. Martinez's movement abides by a similar muscularity and an extreme rendition of ballet as Forsythe's. It includes difficult phrases of pirouettes that change direction and foot positions, particularly in a polished performance by Alejandro Virelles. The work ended as it began, with a solitary woman walking backwards. 

I must confess that Alexander Ekman's Cacti left me with mixed feelings. He pokes fun at dramaturgical pretense and dance criticism, and those who practice one or both and have thin skin might understand. With that in mind, here are some notes:

Cacti. Photo: Rosalie O'Connor
Wow, that is an impressive sight... 16 dancers who all look the same, like they're not wearing tops but they actually are wearing flesh-toned leotards (is that a woman? not sure) with funny short black pants, each on a little platform... scary light grids falling askance from the fly... a few musicians standing around playing... the dancers are pounding their platforms and bodies, making rhythms, alternating and in unison, like football players doing the Polynesian haka pre-game... even slapping their heads, covered with chalk dust… poof… some mock critic's thoughts are read aloud… it sounds pompous and lugubrious… wait, I take that back, those words are pompous and lugubrious. sorry.

Hey! there are the cacti, obviously cheap and light plastic versions, seemingly red herrings, but I'm not supposed to get into any meaning here… those side light grids actually spell out "cacti," flashing like traffic alerts... platforms are dragged and arranged in a little fort… a couple performs a scene while their dreary thoughts and shorthand for moves are spoken aloud… it's supposed to be funny… and it's really just annoying… everyone comes back onstage, without their black pants, and they pose like some expensive Vanity Fair portrait… and the dumb voice comes back on asking if this is the end, like, eight times, and we're all praying it's the end... and it actually does end one second before I actually scream "It better be the end!"

That said, several viewers guffawed at every silly visual joke and satirical sentence. And the stagecraft—set arrangement, lighting (both by Tom Visser), tasteful music played live (Haydn, Beethoven, etc.), and the synchrony and execution of the company, were top-notch. Ekman had hit his target, but it clearly wasn't (or was?) me.

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