|| The Boston Phoenix
|| May 24, 2010
|| Jeffrey Gantz
May in Boston has always been Storybook Ballet Month, as Boston Ballet finished off its season with Swan Lake or Sleeping Beauty or Don Quixote, something classical and highbrow and reassuring. That, after all, is what Boston audiences want, right? Not according to current Boston Ballet artistic director Mikko Nissinen.
Last night at the Opera House, the finale to his eighth season with the company, Jiří Kylián’s Black & White, offered hardly anything in the way of costumes and sets and no live music — just men and women rolling on the floor, posing behind 18th-century dresses, wearing powdered wigs, playing with foils, playing with their underwear, grunting, screeching, fighting, flirting, and chasing after soap bubbles. It’s not just another day at the storybook castle.
Boston has, of course, seen all this before — Boston Ballet staged the same program in February of 2009. The rationale for repeating it so soon is that it ran for just a single weekend then, and it generated big buzz. Whether the current two-weekend run will generate big box office remains to be seen. But Czech choreographer/Nederlands Dans Theater director Kylián’s quintet of pieces — No More Play, Petite Mort, Sarabande, Falling Angels, and Sechs Tänze, all created between 1986 and 1991 — offer plenty of food for further thought, and last night, the dancers (many reprising their roles from 2009) ate it up as if it were a sumptuous dessert.
What comes into greater focus on second viewing is the theme of sexual interplay that goes beyond sex. Like the “Ultimate Balanchine” trio that the company just staged, Black & White is about men and women, and the gradations in their relationships — which aren’t black and white at all. Kylián ties it all together with sets of formal dresses that could be right out of The Marriage of Figaro. In Petite Mort, they’re black, and the women preen behind them; in Sarabande, now different colors, they hover menacingly over the prostrate men; in Sechs Tänze, the men get to try them on (and one another) for size. Mozart is the musical guideline as well: the slow movements from two piano concertos, K.488 and K.467 (the latter familiar from the Swedish film Elvira Madigan), for Petite Mort, the K.571 Six German Dances for Sechs Tänze. But it’s a loose guideline: Falling Angels is set to Steve Reich’s Drumming, and No More Play to Anton Webern’s urban-nightmare Five Movements for Strings.
No More Play is the prologue: we’re in William Forsythe territory, with three men and two women — almost always in groups of twos and threes — in the twilight of day and perhaps of love. It starts with what looks like an allusion to the “Dark Angel” section of Balanchine’s Serenade; at the end, the quintet close ranks, all five sitting downstage with their backs to us and then laying out, their heads dangling over the stage apron, asking us in and at the same time shutting us out. What’s to come is, however, almost all play. The six men of Petite Mort balance and then brandish their foils in anticipation of the title (in French, “petite mort” is slang for “orgasm”) ecstasy. They’ve already stripped down to gold corset briefs, and they soon have the ladies free of those black dresses — but the huge black shroud with which they uncover the women is all about the big death, not the little one, and that’s what hangs over the six sexual-encounter duets, where passion does not mean possession.
Time to reconsider the basics. Sarabande (to the movement of that name from Bach’s Violin Partita No. 2) is a retreat for the men, as they channel their inner child, their inner adolescent, their inner primate: the undershirts come off (and are stowed in the overhead dresses), the trousers come down, the howler-monkey screaming starts. Falling Angels is for the ladies only, and it’s a no-nonsense workout, the participants exploring what it means to be a woman (or a gazelle, or an ostrich), not a little girl.
Where are we after that? Back in the 18th century — but now the sexual politics have turned into sexual parody, with the boys, bare-chested and in powdered wigs, chasing the girls (who give as good as they get), or chasing the other boys, or being chased by the other boys. The black dresses, on rollers, reappear and the boys get “dressed,” look at one another in anticipation or alarm, flounce off. The piece ends in a blizzard of powder and soap bubbles, the four couples backing away in wonder at the romance and the ridiculousness of it all.
Boston Ballet is the only company outside the Netherlands to do the complete Black & White. Kylián is not on everybody’s list of favorite contemporary choreographers — perhaps because he exposes too much (and I don’t mean just the nudity in his Bella Figura, which the company will do next season). Some will be more comfortable with Mark Morris’s “Hey, everybody, let’s get metrosexual” approach. But Kylián’s movement here has originality and point, his relationships have detail, and, in Petite Mort and Sechs Tänze, he uses Mozart to far greater effect than Morris does in his Mozart Dances.
Last night, at least, the company danced with the same commitment they’d given Balanchine the previous week. Many of the highlights were familiar from 2009: Kathleen Breen Combes and Sabi Varga in No More Play’s extended duet; Yury Yanowsky creating a Chippendales Colossus of Rhodes in Sarabande; Melissa Hough’s explosive Falling Angels solo (so eye-catching, you might not notice how, in the line of women behind her, a black dress is rolled forward to take her place); James Whiteside’s exaggerated clowning in Sechs Tänze. One of last year’s most sublime moments, Larissa Ponomarenko’s Petite Mort duet with Boyko Dossev, was missed (Ponomarenko is out injured), but Whitney Jensen was a touching replacement