The BLOG: Culture

Boston Ballet: A season in review

Anaïs Chalendard and Sabi Varga of Boston Ballet in Yury Yanowsky's Smoke and Mirrors; photo by Gene Schiavone, courtesy Boston Ballet

Anaïs Chalendard and Sabi Varga of Boston Ballet in Yury Yanowsky’s Smoke and Mirrors; photo by Gene Schiavone, courtesy Boston Ballet

Ballet is evolving, and Boston Ballet is on the front line. This week the dancers of Boston Ballet return to their South End headquarters from all corners of the globe to prepare for another season. With a program that ranges from Petipa’s classic The Sleeping Beauty to a full-length contemporary ballet by William Forsythe, the company will build on the dynamism proved in 2015-16 — a season that saw the highest attendance in over a decade and the most ticket revenue in Boston Ballet history.

The 2015-16 season challenged the dancers and audiences alike, pushing boundaries, expanding minds and stretching physical capabilities with two world premieres and one North American premiere. Artistic Director Mikko Nissinen pulled from multiple genres of ballet — classical, neoclassical and contemporary — to produce six ballets, including two mixed repertory shows — and the audience responded. These two productions gathered record-breaking revenue, and Mirrors was Boston Ballet’s highest-grossing mixed repertory program in its history. Most companies tend to gravitate toward one of these genres rather than exercising all three equally. Boston Ballet proved proficient in all three, inspiring The Huffington Post to ask: “Is Boston Ballet the Best Ballet Company in America?

The season opened boldly in October 2015 with the North American premiere of John Neumier’s Third Symphony of Gustav Mahler. For Boston Ballet, performing Mahler was a declaration of the company’s prominence in the artistic world. The ballet is a true work of art; audibly, visually, and emotionally. Neumier’s choreography, like Mahler’s music, boldly confronts the human soul, exploring darkness, light, joy, passion, power, vulnerability, life, death and love. Nissinen described Neumier’s ballet as “an ode to being human.”

It takes a special sort of dancer to execute the lead role, a nameless man who experiences this spectrum of human experience. He must be insightful and emotionally present, elegant yet powerful, and very athletic. Principals Lasha Khozashvili and Paulo Arrais were the ones cast in this role, brilliantly so. Both possessing these qualities, they also present different takes on the same emotions and steps in any given role. With Khozashvili and Arrais, the performance is always true. The two established themselves as leading men in the company right from the start of the season, at a critical time when Boston audiences mourned the retirement of Principal Yury Yanowsky and departure of Principal Jeffrey Cirio.

Eris Nezha (left) and Boston Ballet in John Neumeier's Third Symphony of Gustav Mahler; Photo by Rosalie O'Connor, courtesy Boston Ballet

Eris Nezha (left) and Boston Ballet in John Neumeier’s Third Symphony of Gustav Mahler; Photo by Rosalie O’Connor, courtesy Boston Ballet

Khozashvili and Arrais were also lauded for outstanding performances as the title character in John Cranko’s Onegin. Boston Ballet performed the indulgently dramatic and romantic piece (think Pride and Prejudice, but Russian) for the first time in 14 years, this season. It was, perhaps, their most well executed and most polished performance of the season. This is partially thanks to Cranko’s seamless adaptation of Alexander Pushkin’s classic book onto stage, and certainly thanks to Boston Ballet’s tasteful artistic direction and dancing.

Each Onegin cast presented a different nuance in their chemistry that brought out unique dynamics, especially in the climactic Act IV pas de deux where Onegin pleads for Tatiana and she tearfully rejects him. Even ballerinas dancing Tatiana cannot help but shed authentic tears.

Patrick Yocum and Ashley Ellis in John Cranko's Onegin; photo by Gene Schiavone, courtesy of Boston Ballet

Patrick Yocum and Ashley Ellis in John Cranko’s Onegin; photo by Gene Schiavone, courtesy of Boston Ballet

Alongside Khozashvili, Principal Petra Conti was a poignant Tatiana, while Principal Erica Cornejo danced a deeply emotional Tatiana to match Arrais’s Onegin. Now-Principal Anais Chalendard and Soloist Sabi Varga were elegant and tear-jerking leads in their cast. Principals Misa Kuranaga and Eris Nezha were a refined and sympathetic couple for their Onegin. Principal Ashley Ellis and Soloist Patrick Yocum were particularly dazzling and delightful as the opening night Olga and Lensky. Though there were some surprises in the Onegin casting (I would have loved to see Soloist Paul Craig as Lensky), the ballet was still a shining moment for the company.

Alongside Mahler and Onegin, Yanowsky’s world premiere of Smoke and Mirrors was Boston Ballet’s other showstopper of the season. Yanowsky’s ballet was endlessly innovative but not overworked. He employed medical corsets as the women’s costumes so that their partners could manipulate their movement. His choreography was mystifying, inspiring and contemplative, featuring particularly noteworthy performances by Chalendard and Varga, and Soloist Isaac Akiba, who wonderfully embodied Yanowsky’s vision. Read more about the ballet here.

When it comes to powerhouse leading ladies, Boston Ballet is certainly not lacking.

It was another successful season for Kuranaga, who consistently wowed audiences with immaculate technique. The ballerina’s mastery over her craft, especially in quick and intense ballets like William Forsythe’s Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude, allowed her to dig into the choreography and give her roles some show-stopping flair.

Seo Hye Han — who was recently promoted to a principal — and Soloist Ji Young Chae danced brilliantly alongside on Kuranaga for the opening night of Kaleidoscope, which featured the Forsythe piece. The two also alternated featured roles in Smoke and Mirrors and Karole Armitage’s Bitches Brew. They were captivating in these roles, powering through demanding performances.

For Chalendard, 2016-17 will be the first season as a principal dancer. With each performance the elegant French dancer becomes even more stunning and memorable. Once again as a principal, Dusty Button proved endlessly determined and capable, with bright attitude and distinctive lines that lend particularly well to edgy contemporary ballets like José Martinez’s Resonance, where she gave an enticing and haunting performance.

Resonance was a standout moment for Principal Dancer Lia Cirio, too. Her chemistry with Khozashvili still lingers in my mind (read about it here). Last season was Cirio’s best yet. With unwavering balances, sharpness, grace and intensity, Cirio was a commanding presence onstage, especially in her poignant silent solo and pas de trois in Mahler, and as the Dew Drop in Nissinen’s The Nutcracker.

Both the men and the women of Boston Ballet endured physically taxing productions with laudable stamina. For the women, it was the endless shows of Swan Lake. It is a demanding ballet for the women of the Corps de Ballet, who make up most of the famous flock of swans. Beyond dancing the intricate choreography, they are required to stand still in position for extensive lengths of time, their arms aching and muscles cramping.

This is a difficult task to accomplish on a daily basis, but it was especially difficult for Boston’s 18 corps women because Mirrors ran simultaneously. Though they looked beautiful as swans in each show, at times they were noticeably more tired, and swan scenes occasionally felt low-energy; their landings were louder, and feet sloppier. I was impressed, however, with dancers like Gill and Albrecht, and Corps de Ballet Dancers Sarah Wroth, Lauren Herfindahl, Ekaterine Chubinitze and Addie Tapp (whom Pointe Magazine recently named a 2016 “Star of the Corps”), who never seemed to let exhaustion compromise their performance.

For the men, the Third Symphony of Mahler was a huge moment, with roughly 30 minutes of dancing in Act I. The choreography calls for feats of strength, as they lift each other, leap, balance, all in unique postures. Although it was easier to get away with dancing slightly out of sync in Mahler than it was for the swans, a few of the men appeared to struggle with grasping the intense choreography. The same was apparent in Onegin, where the male corps de ballet dancers could not quite dance together in time. Some of their choreography, like deep plies launching into leaps, was noticeably difficult for them.

Boston Ballet in John Neumeier's Third Symphony of Gustav Mahler; Photo by Rosalie O'Connor, courtesy of Boston Ballet

Boston Ballet in John Neumeier’s Third Symphony of Gustav Mahler; Photo by Rosalie O’Connor, courtesy of Boston Ballet

They broke through with great moments, however, the next time they appeared onstage in Balanchine’s Kammermusik No. II. Essentially serving as the neoclassical backdrop, they were synchronized, strong and focused on opening night. The corps mens’ solos in Resonance demonstrated that they excel in individuality. Each dancer has a strong personality and his own style. The flip side of the coin, however, means that they struggle with full corps synchronization. But this can be remedied as they continue to develop both their own styles and shift from focusing on themselves, to each other.

Some of the male corps dancers are already distinguishing themselves as talented dancers, individually, in partnering and in corps scenes: Lawrence Rines danced a number of strong shows, especially nailing his scissions in the Swan Lake pas de trois; Ricardo Santos brought energy and attitude to Bitches Brew; Samuel Zaldivar impressively danced the principal role of Lensky in Onegin, with especially strong solos. These featured roles allowed some reliable members of the Corps de Ballet to shine.

Mikko Nissinen’s smart, cohesive and dynamic programming made Boston Ballet’s last season just that. He made great use of his artistic staff, accomplished dancers and his own vision to present a strong season that will be difficult to surpass. But I’m confident that Boston Ballet will exceed expectations this year, once again.

Mary Hierholzer

Mary Hierholzer

Mary Hierholzer is a freelance journalist and communications specialist at Gordon College. Read her past articles here.