Those who’ve been following the Boston Ballet during its rocky recent years have nothing but praise for Mikko Nissinen, who took over the artistic directorship of the 41-year-old company in 2002. He succeeded Anna-Marie Holmes, who had returned to the job after retiring from it (her presumed successor, Maina Gielgud, quit almost before she started). Holmes, who for a time trained and performed in St. Petersburg, had enriched the repertory with Russian classics. Nissinen honors his more eclectic background. Yes, a new production of Swan Lake and a new Nutcracker, but also Frederick Ashton’s fragrantly bucolic La Fille Mal Gardée, with August Bournonville’s La Sylphide coming in 2005, and Balanchine works that affirm the Boston’s long-standing connection with that peerless 20th-century repertory of plotless ballets. Nissinen danced with the Dutch National Ballet and knows the European scene, so, yes, he’ll incorporate Rudi van Dantzig’s Romeo and Juliet and works by Jirí Kylián and William Forsythe.
The program the company brought to Jacob’s Pillow’s final week affirmed these and other connections: Balanchine’s Who Cares and Duo Concertant; a pas de deux from Val Caniparoli’s Lady of the Camelias (Nissinen was a principal dancer in the San Francisco Ballet, of which Caniparoli is still a member); Plan to B by Nissinen’s fellow Finn, Jorma Elo; and Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes by Mark Morris, who has staged seven works for the San Francisco company (including Drink to Me in 1996).
Having not seen the Boston Ballet perform for a number of years, I’m not in a position to second the Boston critics’ view that the technical level of the company’s dancing has shot up since Nissinen took over. But the performing is certainly impressive in terms of both virtuosity and expressiveness.
The Act I duet from Lady of the Camelias is more about feeling than steps, and the brilliant Cuban dancers Lorna Feijóo and Nelson Madrigal invest Caniparoli’s swoops into each other’s arms with passionate intensity. This is one of those pas de deux in which a man and a woman often race apart so that, after a pause for heated stares, they can rush into increasingly complicatedp embraces (like the tricky one that involves Feijóo being tossed into an air-twist and rapturously caught).
Elo’s rousing Plan to B wears its virtuosity savvily and with compositional flair. The choreographer chose his music well. The violin sonatas of 18th-century composer Ignaz Franz von Biber are not only difficult; they’re eccentric, with very contemporary hints of dissonance, and one of them just stops, as if the musician had tossed his bow aside and gone to to get a drink. The choreography for two women (I saw Larissa Ponomarenko and Kelley Potter) and four men (Sabi Varga, Jared Reddick, Joel Prouty, and Raul Salamanca) also plays with both classicism and modern incursions upon it. The pace never lets up; the dancers burst on and off the stage—sometimes with a fidgety energy that swings the body into small, complicated maneuvers, sometimes with big gusts of movement. Prouty is the first to hurtle into double air turns on a slant, but he’s not the only one who can pull off the trick. Pirouettes are forever. The audience gasps a lot; even a woman running on air when her partner lifts her is presented (and taken) as thrilling. The nicest thing about Elo’s work is that no steps are highlighted or framed by a watch-this preparation; the skillful choreography simply makes the dancers look like a high-spirited bunch of athletes for whom difficulty is an everyday pleasure.
I remember days when crotchety old ballet teachers with Slavic accents didn’t want their prize pupils to take modern dance classes lest they ruin their classically molded bodies by wrenching their pelvises around on the floor. Times have changed; the best ballet dancers can adapt to whatever style is offered them.
Balanchine’s frisky 1970 Who Cares was spiritedly and elegantly performed by a very international cast (although I found Sacha Wakelin a bit brittle at first). Yury Yanowsky brought a nice ease to his encounters with three sensuously playful women (the Gershwin tunes impelled Balanchine to recall his days on Broadway and add a hint of chorus-girl strutting and primping to his ballerinas’ classical decorum). I very much liked Tempe Ostergren in “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise” (a robust but restrained soubrette) and Pollyanna Ribeiro’s clean, bright attack (although her fixed grin bothered me).
Duo Concertant was undermined by the performance of Stravinsky’s eponymous music. For some reason onstage violinist Michael Rosenbloom and pianist Freda Locker chose to play very quietly, so under-energized that they might have been marking. The score is not only a dialogue between the instruments; Balanchine created a conversation between music and choreography (the dancers waiting, listening, returning to stand by the piano when each section is finished). Melanie Atkins and Sabi Vargas didn’t get the stimulation they needed. Both dance the steps excellently, but haven’t quite found a consistent approach to the situation. She, for instance, having been a little cute in the beginning, sentimentalizes the last, poignant, spotlit-in-darkness gesture sequence. Supposed simply to kiss her hand and send the kiss out into the air toward where her partner once stood, Atkins makes the move so elaborate that she obscures its meaning.
I haven’t seen Morris’s Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes—set to Virgil Thomson’s Etudes for Piano (with its buried references to Ben Jonson’s age-old song)—since American Ballet Theatre premiered it in 1988, with Mikhail Baryshnikov as the first of three blithe men. Traces of Morris’s take on Misha cling to the work in the form of a mildly heroic “Slavic” solo. Madrigal, Pavel Gurevitch, and Christopher Budzynski do an excellent job, along with Ribeiro, Romi Beppu, Rie Ichigawa, and six other dancers. In this work, even the star turns are subtle—part of a fabric of beautiful, spiritually and musically supple dancing that presents all 12 performers as members of a peaceful but lively community, where gender differences may be mentioned but not stressed. An experienced and often highly critical former dancer seeing Drink to Me for the first time told me that she couldn’t ever predict exactly what was going to happen next, and that she never stopped smiling. Me either.
In addition to showing living treasures of dance, Jacob’s Pillow mounts exhibitions of ones past and present. The summer festival was the second stop for a highly satisfying and imaginative show, “America’s Irreplaceable Dance Treasures: The First 100.” Sponsored by the Dance Heritage Coalition and curated by Lynn Garafola and Norton Owen, it opened at the San Francisco Performing Arts Library and Museum, and will be installed at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts next summer after a stop in Columbus, Ohio.
The 100 notable dance icons commemorated in images and words range from the expected performers and choreographers (Balanchine, Pavlova, Ruth St. Denis, Alvin Ailey, Fred Astaire, et al.) and their major works to influential companies and institutions (the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, the Federal Dance Project of the 1930s, pedagogues Martha Hill and Bessie Schönberg, Broadway master Bob Fosse, José Greco, Al Minns, Master Juba, Balasaraswati, hip-hop, the dances of the Hopi Kachina, and more).
You can peruse the handsomely mounted photos (graphic design, Suzanne Doig; exhibition design, Stephen Saitas), watch archival film clips and excerpts from Hollywood movies, or summon up little dancing images and printed information on an interactive computer display. A few documents and costume pieces are also exhibited (Wilbur McCormack’s briefs from Ted Shawn’s 1938 Dance of the Ages!). In 1930, J. Ewing Cole, a Denishawn dancer who had left the fold, wrote Shawn, asking that in the future “Dear Papa” not think of him as “one of those awfully clever people ‘who never followed it up.’ ” I daresay Shawn had no opportunity to think that of the man who became Jack Cole.