Boston Ballet seriously want to impress London. Their 50th anniversary celebrations begin at home in the autumn, but it’s this return to England after 30 years that marks the official start of the party, and artistic director Mikko Nissinen has put together two serious, strong programmes for the capital’s ballet connoisseurs at the London Coliseum. Programme A was all about classics: two pieces by Balanchine, Nijinsky’s Afternoon of a Faun, and Plan to B by Jorma Elo, the exciting Resident Choreographer whose works Boston Ballet perform better than anyone else. Programme B, on Friday, was the contemporary showcase, taking three works from (effectively) the 1990s, and showing us what this largely youthful company could do with them.
William Forsythe’s 1991 The Second Detail opened the evening with a bang – and not just those in the percussively synthetic score by Thom Willems. Forsythe’s choreography is updated neo-classical – you get the feeling this is what would have happened if George Balanchine had been 30 years younger and had spent a lot of time in the 80s taking speed and listening to concept electro. It’s explosive and sassy: hips are thrown out all over the place, dancers don’t walk but swagger like Western sheriffs, and at a couple of points the choreography abandons ballet altogether for a few seconds of, essentially, funk. Costumes are post-80s high-necked blue bodytards by Issey Miyake, and the set includes a little white sign reading THE, which seems to serve only one moment, but it’s a good one (at the end). The dancers of Boston Ballet threw themselves into it, and sizzled; tiny Misa Kuranaga was a particular delight. I’m not sure what Kathleen Breen Combes’ white-sheeted role was meant to be, but her slightly dangerous, intense air was mesmerising. This was 22 minutes of visceral, thrillingly enjoyable dance; what a way to start!
Polyphonia shows neo-classical in a different mood – the restrained, elegant work of Christopher Wheeldon for New York City Ballet in 2001. Four couples from the top end of the company display their technical mastery in a conventional structure (everyone/one couple/another couple/a solo... etc., finishing with everyone again), made slightly more interesting by György Ligeti’s piano score. The problem with Polyphonia, I’ve noted before, is that it’s a bit lacking in Wheeldon’s usual sparkle. Credit to him for keeping away from the fluttering gold leaves that are a bit of a trademark, but the plain dark purple leotards and mostly serious score are matched by choreography that, while impressive, doesn’t really help the dancers to charm the audience; that upside-down scissors exit manoeuvre notwithstanding. Honourable exceptions in this regard were Adiarys Almeida and Jeffrey Cirio, whose upbeat waltz section was executed with winning verve, and big smiles. Otherwise, this pretty but cold work left me, well, pretty cold.
No-one could be left cold by Czech choreographer Jiri Kylian’s 1995 Bella Figura, not least because for much of the second half it features two large flaming cauldrons on stage. Kylian’s passionate, contemporary choreographic language is matched by unashamedly intense music and design: billowing red skirts and black curtains which contrast with the pale, smooth forms of the dancers’ nearly-naked bodies, lighting full of warmth and shadow, the aforementioned cauldrons, and a haunting, meditative Italian Baroque score that includes Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater. The music really makes the piece, actually – the sections danced in silence are, perhaps deliberately, disorienting – so it would have been nice to have it performed live. The dancing is hypnotic, so much so that it’s hard afterwards to pick out individual aspects of it; I can only say that it was gorgeous, as if one was watching a silent Greek tragedy from a candlelit bath.
Boston Ballet are clearly a serious, ambitious company with high standards of both technique and artistry, and this triple bill of contemporary classics was for me at least a welcome contrast to the wash of 19th-century story ballets on in London this summer. Thank you to the Americans for showing the work of still-living choreographers and reminding us how exciting ballet is at the moment!