D.M.J. 1953-1977

D.M.J. 1953-1977

Until this past Thursday evening, I had never seen the Boston Ballet and suspected the company might be some blue-stockinged poor relation of New York’s acclaimed companies. Not so! My friend Susan and I were blown away by the quality of the dancing, the startlingly original choreography, and the inventive staging.

The program opened with “D.M.J. 1953-1977,” which was created in 2004 and set to music by three Czech composers, Dvorak, Martinu, and Janacek (the D, M, and J of the title). Choreographed by Petr Zuska, the piece opened with the haunting largo section of “New World Symphony.” Roses were suspended against a deep cobalt blue background and the dancers were positioned near large stele-like slabs. These vaguely tomb stone-like pieces (which put both Susan and me in mind of “2001, A Space Odyssey”) moved throughout the performance, allowing dancers to slide on them, sit on them, or be hidden by them. The roses—red hardly seemed a funerary choice, but more an homage to lost love or passion—appeared and disappeared throughout the

D.M.J. 1953-1977

D.M.J. 1953-1977

piece. Lyrical and beguiling, the opening section evokes love, loss, and regret.

The mood changes in the middle section—becoming frantic and furious, with dancers moving between the now upright stele with urgency, breathtaking leaps, and an astonishing jump in which a woman leaps into space, parallel to the stage, and is caught in mid-flight, arms reaching straight ahead.

D.M.J. 1953-1977

D.M.J. 1953-1977

The final section was stripped, literally, of the flowing white and soft grey costumes. Here, the stunning Lia Cirio and Lasha Khozashvili appear in flesh-colored undergarments, sitting, rolling and collapsing on the slabs like broken puppets. In the end, Cirio greedily gathers up masses of roses, allowing them to fall to her feet, and, holding one against her haunted face, lies upon the slab as the curtain comes down.

In comparison, Balanchine’s “Rubies” seemed, after its first dazzle—a huge sparkly starburst set against the burgundy curtain—a tad musty in comparison. In its day, Balanchine’s choreography was likely sensational (the full piece, “Jewels,” premiered in 1967 and was created to showcase the history of classical dance. “Rubies” demonstrated ballet’s French foundation, “Diamonds” embodied Russia’s imperial style, and “Emeralds,” the new American version.)



Susan put it well, “Pretty, but perky.”

The final piece, “Bella Figura,” choreographed by Jiri Kylian, was a standout, although the recorded music (Lukas Foss, Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, Alessandro Marcello, Antonio Vivaldi, and Giuseppe Torelli) was a let-down—all wonderful music, but one missed the orchestra.

Bella Figura

Bella Figura

First seen in 1995, the piece opens with the house lights up, the dancers engaging in what appeared to be aimless warming-up on a bare, stripped down stage, in silence. As the house-lights come down and the audience quiets, the opening strains of the music seem to cause the dancers to freeze. The curtain comes down partially to frame a single male dancer to the right of the stage. Clad only in flesh-toned briefs and in an impossible shoulder stand, he writhes with the energy of a butterfly emerging from a cocoon. A female dancer on the left scrabbles forward and backward, uttering a silent scream, as the black curtain embraces her, then bella2releases her to dash forward again.

The choreographer makes each movement so economical, yet so full of brimming emotion, that you’re riveted to the many small stories emerging, collapsing, and flowering again. The overarching emotion is longing—a tender yearning for love and connection, a kind of lamentation. Danced on a dramatically lit bare stage with a molten surface, much of the piece is  crisply matched to the music. Sharp arm movements, and flexed feet are balanced by sensuous hip swivels and undulating backs; marvelously inventive slides and percussive slaps climax in an extraordinary lift, in which the woman, caught by the man, falls limp in his arms and, melting onto the floor, walks, lynx-like, on all fours, with the man’s hand resting lightly on her back, as if tethering

Bella Figura

Bella Figura

her. Halfway-across the stage, they switch, he on all fours, she resting a hand on his back.

Bella Figura

Bella Figura

The appearance of a crimson-skirted, bare-chested woman is as startling as one of the male dancers crash-landing on the stage at a particularly percussive moment in the score. The duet which follows has it all: percussive hand and foot movements, off-kilter flexed feet, even a vampire bite. Soon our herky-jerky duo are banished from the stage by a majestic line of the red-skirted women, who stand, arms extended at the elbows, to catch the

Bella Figura

Bella Figura

descending curtain, then fling it over their heads. Evocative of Balinese dancers crossed with Samuri warriors, bare-chested men join the procession.  At the close of this ravishing section, two women approach the curtain, and leaning into it, swoon onto the stage repeatedly—another of the inventive uses of the curtain as prop, or as a seemingly living part of the dance. In the end, they shed their skirts, leaving them bunched at their feet as their bodies wave like sea anemones, blown this way and that by unseen currents.

Bella Figura

Bella Figura

In the final section, two couples are flanked by flaming sconces. When the haunting vocal solo ends, you can hear the muffled sound of the flames as the dance continues in silence, ending with a touching sequence in which the male dancer, his face stricken, gently moves the raised shoulder of his partner down, and she returns the gesture, as if soothing the anxiety out of the other’s body. And so it ends.

See Bella Figura here, in full:




"A Mask," by Vasiliev Nijinsky,

“A Mask,” by Vasiliev Nijinsky

Readers of this blog may remember that my first posting about this remarkable show at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, ended on a poignant note: that Vasiliev Nijinsky had been institutionalized for schizophrenia, never to dance again. Pondering this sad loss, you leave his tortured drawing, “A Mask,” and walk up the winding staircase to the next level of “When Art Danced with Music.”

Backcloth for "Firebird" by Natalia Goncharova, 1914

Backcloth for “Firebird” by Natalia Goncharova, 1914

Natalia Goncharova’s 1926 painted backcloth for the coronation scene in “Firebird” is breathtaking: hundreds of onion domes glitter on this enormous cloth (51.5 by 35.5 feet, one of the largest items ever displayed here). Under a cobalt blue sky, the domes evoke a walled town in a mythic Russia. Arrayed on the walls are painted versions of the coronation scene backcloth as well as a 1914 curtain design for “The Golden Cockerel,” a riot of color celebrating Russian folklore.

Set Design, "The Golden Cockerel, " by Natalia Goncharova, 1914

Set Design, “The Golden Cockerel, ” by Natalia Goncharova, 1914

Playing on a huge screen facing the backcloth is a film of a 2010 reinterpretation of  “The Firebird” (choreographed by Michel Fokine and with Igor Stravinsky’s score) by the English National Ballet. Dramatically silhouetted black and white images of a dancer move across the musical score, copies of the original programs, and a film of Karsavina as the first Firebird, among other images. While it’s wonderful to hear the music in the presence of the evocative backcloth, I would have preferred seeing a more traditional Firebird.

Costume design for the Soldier, from "The Tale of the Buffoon,"

Costume design for the Soldier, from “The Tale of the Buffoon,”

Also featured in the first room is a little-known 1915 ballet, “The Tale of the Buffoon,” based on a Russian folktale. Mikhail Larionov designed the cubist-inspired costumes. My favorite was the costume for the Soldier with his wrap-around beard and jaunty hat.

Narrated by Tilda Swinton, the documentary film accompanying the show explores Diaghilev’s early life in a prosperous family made wealthy by a flourishing Vodka business. Poets, play writes, and other notables made regular appearances at the family’s salons, perhaps seeding the notion in young Diaghilev’s mind that collaboration among the arts is an art form in itself.

Costume for "Cleopatra," by Robert and Sonia Delaunay, 1918

Costume for “Cleopatra,” by Robert and Sonia Delaunay, 1918

In the next room, you’ll see Robert Delaunay’s 1918 set design for “Cleopatra” in brilliant water color and gouache, plus costume designs by Robert and Sonia Delaunay, complete with bulls eye bustier.

Costume for the "Manager," from the ballet, "Parade," by Pablo Picasso, 1917

Costume for the “Manager,” from the ballet, “Parade,” by Pablo Picasso, 1917

The ballet “Parade,” 1917, resulted when Serge Diaghilev reportedly commanded the young Jean Cocteau to “Astonish me!” With scenario by Jean Cocteau, music by Erik Satie, set, curtain and costumes by Pablo Picasso, and choreographed by Leonide Massine, “Parade” is meant to recreate popular music hall entertainment of the time, but with added modern innovations: the skyscraper, airplane, and typewriter. Completely new, “Parade” not only astonished Diaghilev, but outraged audiences at the 1917 premier. Here we see the “Chinese Conjurer,” a dancing horse, a “young American girl,” and the two marvelous “Managers,” in an excerpt of a 2007 performance by Europa Danse. Take a look:

"The Russian Ballet," by Max Weber, 1916

“The Russian Ballet,” by Max Weber, 1916

“The Russian Ballet,” a standout oil painting by Max Weber (1916), is pure color, and movement. Other paintings include “Harlequin (Portrait of Leonide Massine), 1917, and “Mme. Picasso (Portrait of the Artist’s wife, Olga Khoklova”) both by Pablo Picasso. Khoklova danced in the premier of “Parade,” and left the Ballets Russes to become Picasso’s first wife.

Costume for a "Mourner," by Henri Matisse, from the ballet, "Song of the Nightingale," 1925

Costume for a “Mourner,” by Henri Matisse, from the ballet, “Song of the Nightingale,” 1925

One day, we learn in the film, Stravinsky and Diaghilev appeared, unannounced, at Henri Matisse’s home. They told him that he simply must design the costumes for the new ballet based upon the Hans Christian Anderson fairytale, “Song of the Nightingale.” He complied, saying he wanted his eye-catching abstract patterns for the fanciful “Mandarin” court to be “like a painting, but with colors that move.” You can see that movement in a film excerpt by Les Ballets de Monte Carlo, 2003.

Mikhail Baryshnikov as "The Prodigal Son," 1978

Mikhail Baryshnikov as “The Prodigal Son,” 1978

With choreography by George Balanchine, music by Sergei Prokofiev, and fauvist set designs by Georges Rouault, “The Prodigal Son,” 1929, is reproduced in a film of a 1978 New York City Ballet performance featuring an astonishing Mikhail Baryshnikov. A heartbreaker with his 70s shag haircut, Baryshnikov’s formidable dancing prowess is matched by his fine acting.

Costumes by Giorgio de Chirico for the ballet, "The Ball," 1929

Costumes by Giorgio de Chirico for the ballet, “The Ball,” 1929

Giorgio de Chirico conceived of the costumes and set design for “The Ball,” 1929 surrealist concoction featuring architectural salvage—columns, bricks, pediments—as bowtie and ball gown. Even the walls of the gallery space have been painted to represent brick.

Poster for the "Blue Train" to Monte Carlo, by Roger Broders, 1929

Poster for the “Blue Train” to Monte Carlo, by Roger Broders, 1929

Bronislava Nijinska choreographed the charming 1924 “Blue Train” to music by Darius Milhaud, with libretto by Jean Cocteau and costumes by Coco Chanel. The so-called Blue Train took the young and fabulous to Monte Carlo, seen here in a stunning 1929 poster by Roger Broders. The Ballets Russes performed in Monte Carlo every year, perhaps sunning themselves in knitted wool

Bathing Costumes for the ballet, "The Blue Train," by Coco Chanel, 1924

Bathing Costumes for the ballet, “The Blue Train,” by Coco Chanel, 1924

bathing costumes similar to Chanel’s “Costume for a Gigolo” and “La Pelouse.” Restaged in 1994 by Irina Nijinska (Bronislava’s daughter) and Frank Reis for the Paris Opera Ballet, this fresh breath of sea air is utterly modern. Fittingly, the front cloth for the ballet is an exuberant beach scene after Pablo Picasso’s 1922 “Deux Femmes Courant Sur La Plage.” Never has the beach seemed more inviting!

Front cloth for the ballet, "The Blue Train," after Picasso, 1924

Front cloth for the ballet, “The Blue Train,” after Picasso, 1924

And never, it seems now, will there ever be an era as rich in artistic collaboration than Diaghilev’s sadly short, but immensely rich time as impresario extraordinaire: 1909 – 1929. He died of complications of diabetes in 1929 in Venice, Italy at only 57. Without his flair and daring, the Ballets Russes never again achieved the brilliant successes of the Diaghilev years.

Sergei Diaghilev      1872 - 1929

Sergei Diaghilev
1872 – 1929

On view until September 2, 2013, these dance performances will accompany the show:

Kirov Academy of Ballet – July 13, 1:00 and 3:30

Dana Tai Soon Burgess Dance Company – August 11, 1:00 and 3:30