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Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes Centennial Celebration
Wang Theatre, Boston
May 14–17, 2009
Reviewed by Wendy Perron
Photo: Larissa Ponomarenko in Elo's new Sacre du Printemps.
© 2009 Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy Boston Ballet.
How can a living choreographer match the visual splendor of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes—in this case, Georges Roualt’s bold backdrop for Prodigal Son; the elegant, dreamlike interior of Le Spectre de la Rose; and Bakst’s overpowering drenched forest for Afternoon of a Faun?
Jorma Elo decided to fight fire with fire. Literally. In his new Sacre du Printemps, he put a line of actual flames upstage (supervised by two fire wardens). It immediately showed the audience that he wasn’t backing away from the passion and extravagance of the Ballets Russes. At times when the flames were concealed, their reflection shimmered on the floor. Diaghilev would have loved it! (More about this world premiere later.)
In Balanchine’s Prodigal Son (1929)—one of the best narrative ballets ever made—Jared Redick was an energetic, rebellious son, if at times clipped in his gestures. When, exhausted and broken, he looked up at his two sisters who were trying to rescue him, his face was filled with humility. Kathleen Breen Combes’ Siren commanded the stage with an alluring strength and a chilling authority.
Larissa Ponomarenko was a true ballerina in Fokine’s Spectre. As the dreaming girl nudged by her fantasy Rose, her arms floated up, lifting her off her chair. It was the first Spectre I’d seen in which I felt it was her dream rather than a showcase for the Rose. I had an uncanny feeling that I was seeing Karsavina, who created the role. Perhaps it was the white Bakst bonnet with puffy ears, but more likely it was the wholeness of her dancing that was transporting. Although James Whiteside could handle the turns and jumps of the Rose technically, he had no real presence—in a role that requires not only presence but flamboyance. A man playing a rose has to have some sense of androgyny, or at least perfume; the audience has to be able to smell the rose. Ponomarenko could, but we couldn’t.
The role of the Faun in Nijinsky’s Afternoon of a Faun is also difficult for a man. He has to be exact in the highly designed, Greek vase–type movements but also have an animal sense of desire. Altankhuyag Dugaraa was fairly natural as the Faun—an achievement in itself. He could have infused his first arm movements with more consciousness. But the reverie, with seven beautifully draped nymphs, and the Boston Ballet Orchestra playing Debussy, was mesmerizing.
Elo’s Sacre du Printemps might have been titled The Revenge of the Chosen One. Instead of a whole community condemning a young woman to death by sacrifice (as in the original by Nijinsky), a single perpetrator, wearing a satin Satan outfit (Yury Yanowsky in the cast I saw) keeps trying to snuff out Larissa Ponomarenko. When he touches her and she shudders beneath his touch, you know something sinister is going on. The whole atmosphere seems to be building toward a crime of passion. All 16 dancers wear red, as though they’re part of the fire, and some people are trying to hypnotize others.
As in all Elo ballets, the puppet-like moves, spiraling partner work, and snaking heads are intriguing. But it’s the spinning, whipping phalanx of men who take on Stravinsky’s pounding cataclysmic music.
Ponomarenko keeps escaping Yanowsky’s aggressions until finally, in a surprise reversal, she strikes out at him. He drops to the ground. As she bourées off like a wili without her veil, he is burning in hell—or at least crouching in front of a segment of fire.