Like an exquisitely curated exhibition, Boston Ballet opened their 2017-2018 season with a lovely and lovingly prepared program. Featuring Wayne McGregor’s searing and engrossing Obsidian Tear, and then followed by the pure Scandinavian radiance of Jorma Elo’s Fifth Symphony of Jean Sibelius, the tone of the evening radiated simultaneously between a knowledgeable tribute to the pain of the human condition, and the equally human capacity for eternal hope of redemption, beauty and nature.

Obsidian Tear, featuring nine of the company’s most mercurial gentlemen is Boston Ballet’s first collaborative production with The Royal Ballet, and is the company’s second McGregor work, following his very popular Chroma (2013). McGregor deliberately leaves the true meaning of the harsh and powerful work to the audience’s interpretation, explaining, “We don’t understand everything all the time. We don’t live in concreteness.” With a score by Esa-Pekka Salonen, who director Mikko Nissinen describes as “one of his national heroes”, the work remains genuinely open to personal interpretation by both the audience, and, it appeared, the performers. Soloist Irlan Silva took the featured role of the outsider in red, who attempts to infiltrate the group, with various degrees of gentle success and failure, until he is guided to the top of an abyss and falls to his upstage doom. As his character was alternately surrounded by passion and brutal rejection, one became drawn into the characters created by the other men, notably Patrick Yocum’s nearly feminine use of line as he was supported in an adagio, and Lawrence Rines’s powerful commitment to a less featured role. This is a ballet that works only with a company that can field nine men who are not only able technicians, partners and performers, but those who are unafraid of individualized and ambiguous character development as well. Both Boston Ballet and the Royal Ballet are such organizations, and the Boston audience was highly appreciative and demonstrated pleasure and pride in the company’s ability to present this unique work.

The second half of the program, the world première of Fifth Symphony of Jean Sibelius, was created by another enormously gifted Finn, Boston Ballet’s resident choreographer Jorma Elo

Though I have yet to fail to deeply enjoy any of Elo’s works, this proved one of his masterpieces. It was a touching example of a nearly lost genre, that of a true “company ballet”– a work that shows off, and simultaneously develops, the individual members of the company while presenting the entire organization as a series of carefully set jewels in a balletic crown. In this way, Fifth Symphony harked back to ballets of Kenneth MacMillan during his later years with the Royal Ballet; it is the sort of work that can only be created by a company “insider”, one who knows each dancer intimately in terms of their current artistic gifts and future potential. 

The curtain lifted to reveal the company in shadow facing stage right – as though looking into a hopeful morning landscape – perhaps the intention, as the ballet was intended to reflect the Finnish landscape and the dramatic seasonal changes that take place in this very northern climate. The dancers appeared both exquisite and comfortable in their Yumiko designed leotards, which so perfectly portrayed landscape colors: dark grey green for the corps de ballet, a yellowish green for the soloist couples, and a dappled faun for the principal couples. Ashley Ellis alone was costumed in pale blue, and flitted in and out of the groups like a tremulous drop of dew. 

Elo’s choreography was sculptural and softly geometric. Aesthetically classical, it felt at times like an homage to the beauty of ballet as much as the beauty of a landscape. The principal couples (Misa Kuranaga and John Lam, Lia Cirio and Paul Craig, and Kathleen Breen Combes and Junxiong Zhao) each had intricately created duets that showcased their unique skills. Kuranaga and Lam moved like quicksilver, executing with ease an unusual turn that recalled a death spiral in pairs figure skating. Breen Combes was a joy to watch. The joyful twists and turns of her choreography brought back memories of her lovely third movement in Symphony in C a few years ago.

The soloist couples highlighted the range of gifts in the company, and Addie Tapp was particularly exquisite, though it was delightful to see Hannah Bettes provided with challenging technical opportunities. The corps de ballet of 20 dancers highlighted Boston’s current depth of talent and ability at all ranks. All in all, Fifth Symphony was a joy, and is an important work for the company. I hope it appears often in future performances.