The BLOG: Culture

Talent across generations of dance in Boston Ballet II’s First Look

Gabrielle Beach and Derek Drilon of Boston Ballet II in Marius Petipa's La Bayadère; photo by Igor Burlak Photography. (Courtesy of Boston Ballet)

Gabrielle Beach and Derek Drilon of Boston Ballet II in Marius Petipa’s La Bayadère; photo by Igor Burlak Photography. (Courtesy of Boston Ballet)

Last weekend, the dancers of Boston Ballet II gave an afternoon performance to preview the talent and repertoire that audiences can expect to see in the upcoming season. Led by Artistic Director Mikko Nissinen and Associate Director of BBII Peter Stark, the young professional dancers demonstrated the capabilities that they will continue to develop in the two-year tenure of BBII.

Stark and Director of Boston Ballet School Margaret Tracey conceptualized the performance, aptly called First Look. They created a rare opportunity for BBII to work closely alongside seasoned dancers and choreographers, and to perform featured roles that they would otherwise not be exposed to until later in their careers.

First, 10 dancers performed George Balanchine’s Haieff Divertimento, staged by Nilas Martins. It is a short ballet rarely seen onstage, last performed in 1993 by the New York City Ballet for the Balanchine Celebration. That performance featured former NYCB Principal Dancers Wendy Whelan and Martins, himself, in the lead roles.

Martins worked with the BBII dancers on a daily basis, sharing his personal insights from performing the piece. A repetiteur for the Balanchine Trust, he helped the dancers capture Balanchine’s signature neoclassical style, like angular movements and innovative partnering. The music, a piano divertimento by composer Alexei Haieff, contributes to Balanchine’s 20th century feel with inspiration from composer Igor Stravinsky’s use of syncopation and jazzy undertones, Martins said.

BBII dancers Abigail Merlis and Graham Johns led the Haieff Divertimento with a strong performance. Their good technique and involved emotion sparked intrigue. Merlis struck a balance between Balanchine’s stark angles and his jazzy fluidity. Though nerves seemed to occasionally compromise the dancers’ technique and timing, they showed a promising understanding and capability of the genre. The ladies especially excelled in Balanchine’s difficult pointe work with lightness and ease.

Abigail Merlis and Graham Johns of Boston Ballet II in George Balanchine's Haeiff Divertimento; photo by Igor Burlak Photography; (c) The George Balanchine Trust. (Courtesy of Boston Ballet)

Abigail Merlis and Graham Johns of Boston Ballet II in George Balanchine’s Haeiff Divertimento; photo by Igor Burlak Photography; (c) The George Balanchine Trust. (Courtesy of Boston Ballet)

Next, the dancers took a step back in ballet history with a classical pas de deux from La Bayadère. The 19th Century choreographer, Marius Petipa, is responsible for creating the classical pas de deux structure and inspiring choreographers of the future like Balanchine.

Gabrielle Beach and Derek Drilon performed the pas de deux, which, true to classical style, consists of a partnered dance, a male solo, a female solo and a coda. Drilon’s performance was perhaps the highlight of First Look. He lit up the stage with a captivating presence and exceptional technique. His weightless grand and tour jetés were overshadowed only by a series of pirouettes that he ended with an effortless balance in passé.

Drilon’s style of dance brought to mind a former Boston Ballet Principal, Jeffrey Cirio. Cirio, too, began as a BBII dancer, then quickly rose through the ranks of Boston Ballet and was recently promoted to a Principal Dancer with the American Ballet Theater, after only one season with the company. Like Cirio’s, I anticipate that Drilon’s career will be one to follow. During his tenure with BBII, Drilon will need to continue polishing his ballet, but will undoubtedly prove a valuable asset to Boston Ballet’s corps de ballet when he performs with the company in season.

The program took a change of pace with an excerpt from Twyla Tharp’s As Time Goes By. The piece was staged for BBII by Richard Colton, who worked closely with the choreographer at Twyla Tharp Dance and many more remarkable credits. His personal experiences with Tharp added resonance to the philosophies of ballet that he passed on to BBII.

In his opening remarks, Colton noted that each dancer would show a distinct personality and unique style. The flurry of dancers was arresting and they performed well, but the effect would have benefitted from the dancers developing more obvious individuality. Nonetheless, it was intriguing to watch the dancers undertake Tharp’s variation on classical ballet.

Angela Bishop danced the lead role, embodying Tharp’s range of styles and motions. She and Sage Humphries were particularly enchanting: As a dancer, Humphries is thoroughly absorbed in the moment, exuding emotion. Dance seems to run through her veins.

Christian Pforr’s performance of an excerpt from Slice to Sharp by Jorma Elo was another treat in First Look. Pforr rehearsed with company Ballet Master Anthony Randazzo, staging the piece that Elo, Boston Ballet’s Resident Choreographer, originally choreographed for a female dancing en pointe.

Elo’s work was an interesting study of balletic movement, especially given the gender shift. Pforr captured Elo’s contemporary choreography with an intelligent and creative exploration of both graceful and edgy mechanics.

First Look came to a close with an energetic Tarantella from Napoli, choreographed by August Bournonville. The dancers, an assortment of BBII dancers and select Summer Dance Program students, brought personality and enthusiasm to the lively dance, which Stark described as “intricate, musical and challenging.” The choreography drew from ballet and character dancing. At times, the dancers looking on from the background were sloppy with their ports de bras and postures, but Napoli was an altogether entertaining piece, danced masterfully.

Boston will continue to enjoy the 14 dancers of BBII in Boston Ballet’s upcoming 2016-17 season, where they will perform with the main company. The group set high standards for themselves with a promising introduction in First Look.

Mary Hierholzer

Mary Hierholzer

Mary Hierholzer is a freelance journalist and Gordon College graduate.