Boston Ballet stuns with season opener

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Boston Ballet opened its 2015-16 season with a bold statement: the North American première of The Third Symphony of Gustav Mahler: A Ballet, by choreographer John Neumeier. The work is set to Mahler’s Symphony No. 3, and is known for being physically demanding. The ballet lasts one hour and 45 minutes, with no intermission. Boston Ballet is the fourth company in the world to perform the piece .

Unlike works such as Swan Lake or Don Quixote, The Third Symphony of Gustav Mahler: A Ballet has no literary narrative. Instead, it presents a spectrum of human experiences against the backdrop of Mahler’s dramatic music. With Neumeier’s innovative and architectural choreography, it is a visually stunning ballet.

Boston Ballet’s production alternatively featured principal dancers Lasha Khozashvili and Paulo Arrais in the lead role. The role is particularly challenging, since the dancer must remain onstage for all but five minutes of the entire show. When Arrais fell ill, Khozashvili found himself performing the rigorous ballet four nights in a row. It was a strenuous effort for Khozashvili, who hails from Tblisi, Georgia and who joined the company in 2010.

“It is physically one of the hardest ballets I’ve ever done,” he said in an interview with the NewBostonPost. “But by the end I want to get tired again and again to feel the story again.”

(Courtesy of Boston Ballet)

(Courtesy of Boston Ballet)

A chorus of men dance the entire jaw-dropping first movement, which consists of militant, bold brass music. As they beat their chests, they looked like an ancient Greek depiction of man, personifying the beauty, capability, and masculinity of the body. Most dancers took on extra workouts in order to gain the required strength.

Khozashvili began to swim after rehearsals to build stamina. Despite his physical exhaustion, he said that the ballet’s leaps and lifts were not the greatest challenge.

“The hardest part is when I just walk or am just standing,” he said. “When I’m standing it doesn’t mean that I’m chilling. You still have to have this character in the moments of silence.”

He plays the role with a commanding onstage presence. In both dancing and stillness, Khozashvili exudes the domineering and dangerous attributes of his character.

“I really got into the character,” Khozashvili said. “He is powerful. It’s like a war going on.”

The lead role encompasses a deeply psychological and emotional journey. Shirtless and in nude tights, the character represents humanity at its most bare and natural state. He explores his mental and physical capacities while experiencing both the loss and the tension between desire and fulfillment. He also contemplates deep interactions. He struggles and comes to terms with human nature. In a haunting pas de deux, the character encounters an angel of love (played alternatively by Erica Cornejo and Misa Kuranaga), and reaches a state of resigned vulnerability.

But is he dreaming or thinking?

“I would like to think that it is my thought, what is going on in my mind, my fantasy,” Khozashvili said.

But the choreography holds no definite answer. It is a ballet that must be experienced on a personal level. “There are a lot of questions, a lot of ‘what-ifs’ or ‘maybes,’” Khozashvili said.

In rehearsals, Neumeier presented emotional concepts for the dancers to consider. Instead of strictly enforcing choreographic technique, he gave them room to explore interpretive possibilities with more personal expression. According to Khozashvili, this open-handed approach made the ballet special.

“If choreographers give you some sort of freedom, I think it’s amazing, and I love it,” he said. “It helps artists to unlock some quality of thoughts that you could never imagine otherwise.”

Boston Ballet’s next performance is Artistic Director Mikko Nissinen’s The Nutcracker, from Nov. 27 to Dec. 31. Tickets are available on Boston Ballet’s webpage.