Boston Ballet

May 3, 2011

Boston Ballet
, “Bella Figura”
The Boston Opera House

Boston, MA

April 28–May 8, 2011

Date reviewed: April 30 matinee

By Wendy Perron


Kathleen Breen Combes and Isaac Akiba in
The Second Detail. Photo by Gene Schiavone. Courtesy Boston Ballet.


Although this program of three pieces takes its name from Kylián’s Bella Figura, it’s Forsythe’s The Second Detail (1991) that knocks it out of the park. The movement, Tom Willems’ music, and the sheer energy of the dancers coalesce into an exhilarating, on-the-edge-of-your-seat experience. It ranks up there with Forsythe’s more famous work, In the middle, somewhat elevated.

As in elevated, the dancers saunter away from their choreography with a heel-first stride—though with less attitude and more esprit de corps. The look is lighter, almost like a classroom, with sidewalk-gray leotards and an evenly spaced row of 14 chairs upstage. The group formations have a scintillating, Cunninghamesque quality, and each decision of who dances when, who drops to the ground, or who sits down seems miraculous. Classroom exercises like tendus and jumps are sprinkled with inventive partnering. Willems’ music infuses the dance with a bracing energy. Tooting, hammering, and the sound of a glass harmonica are shot through with shards of silence. In one duet, the delicate but sumptuous Misa Kuranaga slowly lowers to the floor as the music stops dead and we hold our breath.

At the end Lorna Feijóo, wearing a blousy, white Issey Miyake dress, dashes in, twisting and churning. Possibly a Cassandra figure, she offers a contrast to the more disciplined figures in gray.

All the dancers perform with gusto, but Kathleen Breen Combes’ style and attack, marked by a glorious freedom in the upper body, is particularly thrilling. The Second Detail is something she can really sink her teeth into, and she emerges as an exciting contemporary ballerina.

Helen Pickett’s Part I, II, III changes the mood with a hint of tragedy. In this series of three miniatures set to the music of Arvo Pärt, “Part I” takes place in a dim, velvety Caravaggio-like world. Kuranaga and John Lam appear and disappear into the surrounding darkness like a mirage. Based on an ancient Persian story, this section has the two melting into, protecting, or standing back from each other in voluptuous images of love and despair. In “Part II,” which is based on a Japanese fairy tale, Combes reacts to Lorin Mathis’ touch with a shimmering vulnerability that reminds me of films of Margot Fonteyn as the water sprite in Ashton’s Ondine. (Pickett talks about the power of touch in our recent Choreography in Focus.”) Arvo Pärt’s Tabula Rasa overshadows the group choreography in “Part III.” But at the end, Kuranaga’s short, wild solo brings the focus back to dance.

Kylián’s Bella Figura (1995) projects the riveting combination of austerity and frank sexuality that Kylián is known for. But as the stage curtains cleverly frame, conceal, or reveal certain episodes, the ballet seems disjointed. For religious fervor, dancers slap their own thighs while a Pergolesi aria rings out on tape, bordering on hokey. For humor, they lift a shoulder up and then press it down.

Kylián’s brilliance lies in embedding phrases with small surprises. As a woman is lifted, she does a turned-in changement in the air. A man circles a woman’s extended arm instead of taking it. If you keep your eyes on the details, there’s plenty to look at.

But the signs and symbols can seem portentous. The opening group sequence is bordered by two nearly nude people suspended diagonally on either side of the stage in boxes. Are they coffins? Later real flames appear where those boxes had been. Both the men and the women appear topless in huge, red skirts. These vignettes lack the throughline that makes Kylián’s ballets like Stamping Ground and Soldiers’ Mass so satisfying.

However, toward the end, in a transcendent moment, Rie Ichikawa and Sarah Wroth, bathed in a supernaturally bright light (designed by Kees Tjebbes), reach toward each other, then ceremoniously remove their own skirts. Is this what Bella Figura (“beautiful figure”) is about—the unadorned human body?

This program, which continues through May 8, is a triumph for Boston Ballet. It imports two major works never before seen in the U.S. and gives us a glimpse into a new American talent—all contributing to the sharpening of the company’s aesthetic profile.