Close to Chuck: C. to C. (Close to Chuck) Reborn, Resonance, Bella Figura
Boston, Boston Opera House
20 February 2014
Boston Ballet’s first production of 2014, Close to Chuck, opened at the Boston Opera House on February 20. It consisted of three pieces: C. to C. (Close to Chuck) Reborn by Jorma Elo, Resonance by José Martinez, and Bella Figura by Jiri Kylian.
Jorma Elo’s piece, created for American Ballet Theatre in 2007 but revised for this production, has one of those infra dig titles he dotes on, like Sharp Side of Dark, In on Blue, and Slice to Sharp: titles meaningless to all but him. You don’t get it? Your problem. That aside, this is a wonderful ballet and, I predict, a permanent addition to the repertory. Set to Philip Glass’s piano solo A Musical Portrait of Chuck Close, admirably played by Bruce Levingston, it begins in a slow, stately fashion as if we’re watching a sacred ceremonial. Dancers appear in voluminous black skirts which, when raised, show a Chuck Close self-portrait on a red background whose eyes and eyeglasses also fill the gigantic drop cloth at the back of the stage. Sometimes the women look like Minoan goddesses and when four dancers in voluminous capes raise their arms at the end of Part I, they look like celebrating priests.
Happily, there’s hardly any of the anti-balletic, spastic movement that characterized Elo’s early work. Instead, the piece is mostly lyrical, gentle, even tender. Dancers gently push and tug at each other, as if caught in magnetic fields of attraction, and midway and then again in the final moment a dancer places his hand on the pianist’s shoulder, as if to say “You’re one of the group too.” The six dancers were all exemplary (Kathleen Breen Combes, Lia Cirio, Whitney Jensen, Jeffrey Cirio, John Lam, and Sabi Varga), with Varga first among equals.
Resonance by Jose Martinez, formerly an étoile at the Paris Opera Ballet, is a disappointment, all the sadder since this was a company commission and a world premiere. There’s no unifying concept to the choreography and most of it is derivative: warmed-over Petipa, second-rate Balanchine, echoes of Les Sylphides, post-modern clichés. Also, Martinez’s tricks are tiresome. He often has several dancers each perform different movements simultaneously, which of course diffuses our attention. Midway through, two dancers appear in the orchestra pit, obscured for most of the audience. Too cute by half.
The ballet has no intimate relation to the music and no momentum (you could end it anywhere); the lighting is harsh; and the two pianists weren’t up to the demands of Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes. And yet the exquisite pas de deux in the middle (admirably performed by Lia Cirio and Lasha Khozashvili) clearly demonstrates that Martinez can show impressive talent. Here’s hoping it shines more brightly in his future work.
Last on the bill was a magnificent performance of Jiri Kylian’s Bella Figura. The curtain rises to reveal nine dancers moving in silence, as if rehearsing. As the music begins, a black curtain descends and a bare-chested woman is lifted off the ground by someone behind the curtain. She dogpaddles and then, back on her feet, howls silently. Black curtains rise or fall, part or close, revealing different parts of the stage from its entire expanse to small squares and narrow panels. The dancers slide back and forth, they slap their thighs loudly, they jut their hips and revolve their pelvises, they teeter on the brink of an abyss, they shoo flies away from their faces, a man leaps high in air and falls with a thud in a shapeless heap. In the final section, five women and four men appear bare-chested in bulbous red skirts. We are clearly in an alien universe.
I don’t pretend to understand much of what’s going on, and yet I’ve come to love this ballet over the years. For me, it’s a masterpiece of contemporary choreography. The choreography is endlessly inventive, the score (Lukas Foss, Pergolesi, Vivaldi et al) is gorgeous, the piece is an emotional powerhouse from beginning to end, and it’s full of arresting images. Aside from those I’ve mentioned, two more deserve mention. When side curtains close with maybe ten feet between them, two bare-chested women in those red skirts, back to back, take hold of the edge of the curtains, arch their backs, and sink until their heads touch the ground. Then they turn to face each other and begin a Kabuki wrestling match until, leaving their skirts on the floor, they rise and begin gently and tentatively exploring each other’s bodies without ever touching. Finally they part, and the impression they leave behind is mysterious, tender, compelling, and utterly memorable.
Example two occurs in the closing moments of the ballet. Previously we’ve seen dancers hunch a shoulder and then with their own hand pull it back down, as if inhabited by an additional being. Now a man and a woman alternately raise a shoulder but the partner pulls it back down, restoring balance and harmony and creating new intimacy in the final moments until they stroll off stage in silence and the ballet ends.
Though Boston Ballet has performed Bella Figura in the previous three years, I’ve never seen it do a better job. The ballet is now more kinetic and cleaner with smoother edges and better transitions. Bodies move only because the emotional content of the choreography impels them. But for that matter, the company looked terrific throughout all three performances I saw, with special honors going to Whitney Jensen and Alejandro Virelles. Though soloists, both dance far better than some of the principals. Promotions, anyone?