Boston Ballet’s ‘Chroma’

16 May

I’ve never missed an opening curtain—until I arrived in Boston. What was supposed to be a nice drive from Philadelphia to Beantown went from five hours to six, and six to more than nine. As I wasted away in the endless traffic, firing a colorful assortment of curses that singed my ears, increasing my white hairs twenty-fold, and resorting to smashing my forehead against the steering wheel aplenty, I lamented that I wouldn’t make it in time to see the curtain rise on Boston Ballet performing Serenade—which felt like a cardinal sin. To my chagrin I resigned to seeing only Chroma and Symphony in C of the triple bill, but considering all the rage I had going in, Wayne McGregor’s work was actually a blessing in disguise.

The controversial modernist McGregor, known for his back-breaking, hyper extended extremist alien choreography, is essentially the torchbearer of what I often despise most in a great deal of contemporary work. The physical aggression and severity of his ballets is such that it demands genetically acquired gifts—women must have a freakishly mobile spine and everyone has to have open hips to the nth degree. Now, this is of course true for ballet dancers in general (though it wasn’t always the case) but McGregor exploits it to a point where I’m not sure all accomplished dancers can even train to do his work. I don’t even find his style particularly innovative; it might be new to ballet, but it isn’t new to rhythmic gymnastics, twenty, thirty years ago (because rhythmic today is more circusy than ever) and without the noodly legs, the leftover substance isn’t new to things that have been done in postmodern dance. When I’m left with a feeling that gymnasts who train as athletes could probably learn to dance his work over trained ballet dancers, it begs the question: what are we really looking at?

Regardless, I have to admit that Chroma is a brilliant piece to behold, in large part due to the percussive score by Joby Talbot and Jack White of The White Stripes fame. With a set of ten dancers dressed in flesh toned undergarments unleashing a constant wave of undulating spines, rolling hips, and limbs extended to the sky, then punctuated by sharp, angular gestures that connected one moment to the next, one body to another, there’s always something of intrigue to look at. I mistakenly assumed that due to the assailing dynamic of the piece that Chroma didn’t allow for much individual expression, but I was wrong. Because of unfamiliarity with the dancers of Boston Ballet, I had a hard time keeping track of who was who in the Friday (5/10) cast, and to my surprise the dancers on Saturday (5/11) night revealed some wonderful idiosyncrasies, probably because I had something to compare them to. Corps member Seo Hye Han made a lasting impression by tempering softness into it, and I also found my eye drawn to Joseph Gatti, who brought a keen Michael Jackson sensibility (check out this video of him dancing like MJ—it’s incredible), complete with a signature glossy, endless spin. It’s clear the dancers loved performing Chroma—I’d imagine the experience was both indulgent and liberating, getting to do the things ballet training says “no” to and it was fun to watch them be ferociously offensive.

The Royal Ballet in Chroma:

I have tremendous respect for Dame Monica Mason for having hired McGregor into the Royal Ballet because even if I don’t like everything about the results I believe she made the right decision by taking a risk. However, I worry that if a line isn’t drawn somewhere, then the identity and essence of ballet could be further denigrated. I actually like that McGregor’s work is making its way into company repertories all around the US because American audiences in particular love the bombastic, but whether you like Bournonville or Balanchine or whomever, the master choreographers of this art form have always had a reverence for the steps themselves include ballet vocabulary. It’s true that McGregor is making work that resonates with audiences, but I wonder if his work is succeeding in making him relevant—rather than ballet. So yes, “back-breaking, hyper extended extremist aliens” have their place in dance because it’s still movement but I don’t know that it can go beyond novelty, in the sense that companies can regularly perform his work but not necessarily promote it as “the new ballet”. I’d feel differently if classical ballet was actually popular and subtlety still appreciated, but when the man behind me said: “that [Chroma] blew the first one [Serenade] out of the water”, my heart sank because it’s not that I think Serenade is imbibed with universal appeal (though it’s pretty damn close), just that the lack of understanding of ballet is such that this particular audience member’s immediate reaction was to draw a comparison to two vastly different pieces and that art appreciation in America is inevitably reduced to competition where the outrageous always wins.

Still, in terms of contemporary choreographers, what I do like about McGregor is that he has been able to separate himself from the pack because he’s found a way to fully realize his extraordinary visions with—wait for it—authenticity. If we now live in a world where it’s getting harder and harder to say anything new, McGregor’s voice is at least true to himself. He’s incredibly intelligent and I’m interested to see how he embraces the narrative format for his upcoming ballet Raven Girl—not that I can skip across the pond at leisure anytime soon but I’m curious to read the forthcoming reviews nonetheless (reading dance reviews—imagine that!), and I like that McGregor has me thinking a great deal, wanting to converse, and to see more, even if it’s not because I love to. Thankfully, Boston Ballet “Oreo-d” Chroma with Serenade and Symphony in C, and whether you enjoy the cookie parts, the cream filling, or the whole sandwich, you were made to experience something you normally wouldn’t, had the evening been “All Balanchine” or “All Contemporary”.

Now there’s nothing I can say about Serenade that hasn’t already been said in regards to its history or its stunning beauty, so I’m going to describe a mere sliver of it as a dance of angels to the most beautiful music by Tchaikovsky (first ballet Balanchine made in America, eschewed the ornate in favor of highlighting the dance, beloved by many, etc. etc). I never tire of seeing Serenade—watching the curtain rise on that famous diamond pattern of seventeen women in pale blue skirts on Saturday night lifted my spirits and eliminated in one breath all the angst I had accumulated in my travels towards Boston. A last minute cast change had Adiarys Almeida filling in for one of the featured roles and she was a delight. I found her dancing so tranquil and having extraordinary balance certainly worked in her favor. Even as a shorter dancer she filled empty spaces with long lines and fluidity. Equally enjoyable was Brittany Summer, who emanated a pleasant freshness in her expressions.

Over two performances of Symphony in C, possibly Balanchine’s most classical work and symbolized by pure white tutus, Almeida again stood out with a lovely charm that she subdued in Serenade. The second night had Misa Kuranaga in the same role as the lead ballerina of the first movement, a bright allegro to match her fabulous technique. Kuranaga is the kind of dancer you can watch and forget that you’re watching ballet because it looks completely natural on her and nothing is forced or has the appearance of something that requires any amount of concentration. She moved diligently and in the simplest manner possible, a resplendent queen in a garden of white roses. Paulo Arrais partnered with Kuranaga, and sailed cleanly through a series of pirouettes with an adorable smile, also presenting Kuranaga most nobly. Ashley Ellis and Nelson Madrigal performed the slow second movement both nights that I saw, Ellis with a glorious sense of luxuriousness without overindulging, and Madrigal a reliable partner in a role that doesn’t necessarily get a lot of recognition for the male dancer. However, the third movement is a scherzo/allegro vivace and seemed to lack some spark. If I had to address any cracks in the armor, this was the place where I noticed timing as an ensemble wavered and some of the dancers looked a little tentative. These issues lingered into the fourth movement and my favorite (because I love the way Balanchine reworked the choreography from each of the previous three movements to fit into a faster tempo when he reintroduces each grouping), but when you’re cramming fifty-two dancers on stage, it’s hard to synchronize them like clockwork. Still, the ifnal movement is fast, fun, and exciting—or so I thought because the ovation for Chroma in comparison to Symphony in C had me wondering if the latter wasn’t drastic enough to be a show closer anymore…the difference is however, a marker of how times have changed.

Strong programming and exceptional dancers—I couldn’t have asked for more in seeing Boston Ballet put together a couple of strong performances that also highlighted how big the company has become in recent years. Including Boston Ballet II they now have just over sixty-five dancers which puts them on par with San Francisco Ballet and given the strength of their school (the adult program alone is unbelievable—and a topic for another day!) they’re a fortress of ballet on the East coast, a remarkable feat considering the proximity to New York. Boston Ballet is very much its own entity though, one of the first to bring McGregor’s Chroma to the US (the second after San Francisco, I believe) and monstrously strong with great diversity amongst its ranks. I envy the city’s residents and the fine dancing they get to enjoy and egads they’ve already opened with Coppélia, not even one week removed from the last showing of ‘Chroma’! Perhaps I left too soon…or maybe not, because Coppélia really isn’t my—whatever, nevermind. That’s enough bias for one day!

7 Responses to “Boston Ballet’s ‘Chroma’”

  1. lsavannah May 17, 2013 at 3:47 am #

    Favorite line, “reading dance reviews–imagine that!” I haven’t seen any of McGregor’s work yet, but I think it’s important that American audiences get some exposure to his style, if only to foster some ‘cross-the-pond dialogue with the British companies who have spent time tapping his creativity.

    • youdancefunny May 17, 2013 at 9:19 am #

      I agree we do need some amount of McGregor here! San Francisco Ballet commissioned a work called ‘Borderlands’ that got some great reviews, so there is something somewhat unique to the repertory of an American company for the time being.

  2. avesraggiana May 17, 2013 at 8:07 am #

    “Chroma “blew” Serenade out of the water”? Oh dear, the guy didn’t get it, did he? I’m thinking, here’s a young audience member accustomed to the contortions, gyrations and bumps and grinds, all devoid of of actual expression, in the manner of “So You Think You Can Dance”. That’s unfortunate.

    I don’t know what it is about ballet that turns off straight American men almost instantly. I’m really perplexed by their imperviousness to it, and they absolutely hate it! They just don’t get it and it doesn’t reach them. If it takes a gymnastic, Cirque du Soleil-type spectacle to engage this demographic, then so be it. But the broader, deeper, wider, richly resonant world of ballet, represented by Serenade and Symphony in C is lost to them. What a shame.

    • youdancefunny May 17, 2013 at 9:26 am #

      Well he definitely sounded older!

      I could appreciate the difference of opinion had he stated it better…but I’m not the best person to engage a stranger in conversation, especially on the defensive! It really begins in schools anyway, where art education isn’t really addressed. The perception of arts classes in the US is that they’re “easy As” and require only participation, which needs to change as well. I even immersed myself in the arts as best I could in high school, and rarely (if ever?) did we talk about the history of what we were doing–it was practice only.

      Meanwhile, US history classes run students into the ground with war. It certainly says a lot about the priorities of the educational system, and of course, the results!

  3. Suzanne Haag May 17, 2013 at 8:25 am #

    Thank you for this review! I have been enjoying your posts for some time now and felt compelled to respond to this one. Just yesterday I was watching yet another video of Wayne Mcgregor’s work that someone had sent me. And though I admit his choreography is crazy and eye-popping, I’ve yet to feel he is the greatest ballet choreographer of current times like so many of my colleagues do. Would I like to perform one of his works? Yes. Do I think his choreography is intricate and different? Absolutely. Do I feel any emotional attachment to the work? Meh. I was JUST wondering what was wrong with me but your article made me realize that I am not completely crazy in feeling the way I do. I almost feel that going to watch a ballet class at the Royal would elicit the same amount of drooling as seeing those same beautiful bodies perform a work by Mcgregor. I am not a purist, I enjoy the broad spectrum of ballet (and dance for that matter) but agree that “without the noodly legs, the leftover substance isn’t new to things that have been done in postmodern dance”. But it was interesting to hear from you that there was room for individual expression in his work.

    Thus far, his work just doesn’t do it for me, but perhaps I need to see a live production and give him a chance.

    Thank you for your thoughtful and humorous articles. I look forward to more!

    -Suzanne Haag

    • youdancefunny May 17, 2013 at 9:39 am #

      Hi Suzanne,

      Thanks for reading and thanks for commenting! I would certainly recommend a viewing of a McGregor ballet live, but definitely feel the same way you do (although I wouldn’t want to perform one of his works even if I were capable!).

      He’s wildly imaginative but there’s just a certain magic that is missing. But to be honest, I often feel the same about Ratmansky and Wheeldon as well so I’m beginning to think it has nothing to do with classicism or modernism. I’ve certainly enjoyed works by all 3, and even Chroma (and Concerto DSCH) have come close to eliciting that feeling but I’ve yet to be deeply moved as I have with works by other choreographers.

  4. Sara Grosoli May 17, 2013 at 2:07 pm #

    Go to Royal Opera website: there are Raven Girl features. Not so impressive in my opinion

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