A friend of mine once said “life is ugly. I want art to be beautiful.” I would add to that “life tells us enough stories. I want ballet to let my mind breathe.” As much as I love the story ballets, I seem to need poetry more than prose these days. Choreographers like William Forsythe, Helen Pickett and Jiří Kylián are fluent in the poetry of movement and give all the breathing room one could wish for. In their recent program, Bella Figura, Boston Ballet was in turns meditative, stylized, comical, exotic and mysterious. The ballets are like Rorscach tests, in which the inkblots move, interact and give the viewer much to ponder.

Boston Ballet in Bella Figura © Gene Schiavone
Boston Ballet in Bella Figura
© Gene Schiavone

One of the great joys of a program like Bella Figura is the opportunity to watch exactly that... bella figura. In this choreography the dancers seem weightless. They are grace and movement incarnate. In the second detail by William Forsythe, the dancers are stylized and sleek - a perfect match for the electronic accompaniment of Thom Willems' music. In between the pre-recorded music, which fills the hall and seems almost to sweep the dancers off their feet, there are moments danced in silence. Dressed in pale, blue-gray, the dancers are cool and sophisticated, coming in and out of a whirl of constant movement and change. It is exhilarating.

Following the second detail was Pärt I, II and III, inspired by the music of Arvo Pärt and choreographed by Helen Pickett (who we were pleased to spot in the audience). Pärt I, II and III are like three tiny reliquaries, each beautifully ornamented and containing something sacred. The first is a shadowed tragedy, barely lit and heartbreaking. The second, a tender fairytale (with one of the loveliest costumes of the night). The third, an unfettered Tabula Rasa in twirling purples and blues. Unlike the other two pieces on the program, Pärt I, II and III was accompanied by the Boston Ballet Orchestra.

The headlining piece was Jiří Kylián's Bella Figura – performed for the first time by a company in the United States. Having seen Black & White by Kylián last year, I was looking forward to Bella Figura and was not disappointed. Bella Figura combines the wit of Kylián's Sechs Tänze with the drama of Petite Mort. Kylián is not restricted by traditional use of anything – costumes, curtains and gender included. The ballet begins with the house lights still up, to the surprise of patrons still taking their seats. Early on, a dancer is embraced by the curtain – held aloft and then released. At another point, the curtains close from the side and top, framing the dancers as they cross the stage, only to fly open in the next instant. The most infamous moment (because this is the United States) was when both male and female dancers appeared wearing only billowing red skirts. Because of the dancers' physique and grace, it was initially difficult to tell who was who. They seemed like priests and priestesses in their skirts, taking command of the stage.

All in all, it was an evening spent watching artwork that moves, interacts and vanishes before you're quite done with it. My only regret is that this choreography isn't readily available for repeated viewing. I could see these ballets over and over, and still feel like they were brand new. With ballet I often feel like I'm watching paintings and sculpture come to life. In these ballets, the artwork comes to life and then quickly leaves the building. It is ephemeral. Fleeting.

It is this ephemeral quality that gives us license to think and respond. To catch it, hold it, and turn it into something tangible and clearly defined is impossible. Instead, we watch the human body and react in whatever way seems most appropriate. Our contemporary choreographers have broken the rules and turned story upside down. The rest is up to us.