Boston Ballet opens the second half of the 2014-2015 season with Lady of the Camellias, a ballet first performed by the company in 2004. Based on Alexandre Dumas’ 19th-century novel, La Dame aux Camélias, and set to music by Frédéric Chopin, this three-act ballet tells the tragic tale of the sought after and consumptive courtesan, Marguerite, and the man she loves, Armand. The story will be familiar to many as Dumas’ novel was the inspiration for Verdi’s opera, La Traviata, and more recently, for Baz Lurhmann’s 2001 film, Moulin Rouge.  

Kathleen Breen Combes and Yury Yanowsky © Gene Schiavone
Kathleen Breen Combes and Yury Yanowsky
© Gene Schiavone

Val Caniparoli, an American choreographer most closely associated with San Francisco Ballet, created Lady of the Camellias in 1994 on Ballet Florida, in co commission with Ballet West. From the opening act, it is evident that this is a modern creation and rather unlike the traditional three-act ballets of the 19th century. Dancing begins as soon as the curtain rises – there is no prologue, no extended period of mime, and there are no character dances. Instead we are immediately greeted by a flurry of dance that persists throughout the production and into which the story is seamlessly intertwined. He makes use of the whole space, with constant movement taking the dancers across the stage and little idling of bodies in the background. Caniparoli’s choreography is rooted in classicism but bears evidence of a broader set of influences including, here, modern dance and even ice skating, which is made evident by the numerous ways that he has orchestrated the overhead lifts.

On opening night, the lead roles of tragic lovers Armand and Marguerite, were danced by principals Yury Yanowsky and Kathleen Breen Combes, an offstage husband and wife couple. Yanowsky, now 42, will be retiring from the company at the close of the production. Together, they were magnetic – it is certainly difficult to deny their chemistry, and both are blessed with ­­­strong acting chops. In the first act, in the setting of Marguerite’s boudoir, the two lovers perform a pas de deux that is nearly as poignant as the famous balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet. Set to a tranquil and romantic Chopin piano concerto, it is a flowing, fluttering, ethereal piece characterized by long lines, pin wheeling limbs, and tender moments of stillness. Breen Combes was stunning in her portrayal of Marguerite, executing Caniparoli’s choreography with strength and fluidity, and gracefully compensating for Yanowksy’s occasionally labored movements. Yanowsky, though no longer a virtuoso dancer, performed the role of heartbroken Armand with a sincerity and vulnerability that was entirely absorbing. 

Boston Ballet in Val Caniparoli's <i>Lady of the Camellias</i> © Gene Schiavone
Boston Ballet in Val Caniparoli's Lady of the Camellias
© Gene Schiavone
The choreography does not call for a large cast – only the third act makes use of the corps. Instead, a number of principals and soloists are highlighted throughout the production. It was such a treat to see principals Paulo Arrais, Jeffrey Cirio, Lia Cirio and Misa Kuranaga, and soloist Bradley Schlagheck onstage together, moving seamlessly through short vignettes, some comedic involving copious amounts of mimed champagne drinking, and some displaying the dancers’ bravura with synchronized turning and jumping passes.

The sets (by David Gano and Robert Glay de La Rose) were sparse but effective, with tall bronze windowpanes, chandeliers, pillars, and furniture pieces set against plain backdrops, while de La Rose’s costumes were bright and ornate, offsetting the more austere colors of the set. The Boston Ballet orchestra was joined by soprano Alexandra Whitfield, and tenor Rockland Osgood, who each took a turn to sing Chopin’s haunting “Nie ma czego trzeba” (“I want what I have not”), adding an extra layer of unsettling melancholy to this heartrending production.