Like the world outside the theater, the modern audience for ballet has almost unanimously decided that ours is an era for change, that ballet should not be a museum of artifacts but rather a constantly evolving gallery of new acquisitions. This is largely why the young choreographer Christopher Wheeldon was brought into the New York City Ballet as its resident choreographer in 2001. Widely heralded as the heir to the great neo-classical choreographer George Balanchine, he was entrusted with transforming the company for our post-Balanchine century creating what he called “a world that is not specific to either the narrative or the abstract.” Boston Ballet’s “Night of Stars” on Friday night clearly aimed to make good on this dream, and the resulting evening was a somewhat disproportionate amalgam with occasional bursts of fireworks.
The program opener was Jorma Elo’s “In on Blue,” a sort of “Midsummer Night’s Dream” set in water, evoking a fairy underworld and land of mer-people. Elo, a Finnish choreographer and the acclaimed “successor” to William Forsythe, evidently takes transition to the modern very seriously: the ballet featured women in bejeweled tutus but no pointe shoes, and steps in the purely classical ballet idiom crassly segued into flexed feet and robotic contractions. It was interesting, then, to watch Forsythe’s own “Vile Parody of Address” seven pieces later. Danced by John Lam, the very contemporary ballet provided a fascinating study of the subconscious. Fundamentally rooted in improvisation, it is largely up to the interpreter to set the mood of the dance. Lam was both desperately somber and charmingly lighthearted, and his unmatchable plasticity gave way to extraordinarily sketched patterns in the air.
One of the fireworks came early, in the form of an excerpt from the “Rubies” section of George Balanchine’s full-length plotless ballet “Jewels.” Considered the crown of Balanchine’s jazzy, bold, American-inspired works, it fits its Stravinsky score like a glove. Misa Kuranaga absolutely nailed the glamour, sexiness, and sophistication the pas de deux demands, adding just the appropriate amount of vulgar. Her flawless technique and assured assimilation of the role originated by Patricia McBride was aided by James Whiteside’s able partnering. Whiteside later appeared in “Ein Von Viel,” a modern ballet choreographed by Sabrina Matthews whose main innovation was bringing a grande piano onstage and a brilliant musician, Freda Locker, to sit at it.
The piece d’occasion fared much better. Set to Chopin, “Rhyme”—a world premiere choreographed by Viktor Plotnikov—began with slow, silent movement, with the dancers captured in spotlights like snapshots. This set the stage for a moving and harmonious pas de deux with shockingly acrobatic movements accomplished with the greatest degree of finesse and taste. The highlight was certainly Larissa Ponomarenko’s highly arched instep beating the ground in a frenzied tick as she extended her leg on the floor with extreme hyperextension, a feat that could be trite and crude in the hands—or rather feet—of another.
“Liturgy,” choreographed by Chistopher Wheeldon, was billed as the highlight of the evening, by virtue of the two stars on loan from New York City Ballet, Maria Kowroski and Albert Evans. Kowroski, in a startling flesh-colored leotard fashioned like a bikini, had the unenviable task of taking on a role created on Wheeldon’s muse Wendy Whelan, largely inimitable in her otherworldly, limbless, spider-like movement. “Liturgy,” however, is not another one of Wheeldon’s “insect” ballets, nor is it acrobatic, and Kowroski was able to employ her signature endless, elastic legs in a way that made the ballet more poetic than I’ve ever seen it. As the two eased in and out of darkness with a series of quirky arm contractions in repetition, the beautiful Arvo Part music pulsated, carving Kowroski and Evans as agents of a heartbeat.
Twyla Tharp’s brilliant “In the Upper Room” closed the evening, but what probably seemed like an obvious choice to end the performance in the programming office did not translate as well to the stage. The fascination in this particular ballet lies in the buildup to the climactic fifth movement: as Phillip Glass’ music becomes more and more dramatic and exciting, the dancers drop clothes and spiral out of control in a frenzy of ecstatic and hopeless passion. But without the context of the first four movements, the fifth and only one presented looked too easy, and the dancers looked too happy, for Tharp’s imagination to come to life.
Still, there was something about the ambition to end with a nonsensical, kaleidoscopic cataclysm that made one feel as though dance, in its truest form, can exist at any number of points between the narrative and the abstract.