Jorma Elo Reimagines ‘A Night at the Ballet’

In the Boston Ballet’s February press release, famed choreographer Jorma Elo said of his newest production, “I hope the audience comes to the theater with no expectations.” Indeed, convention was thrown aside from the very start in “Elo Experience” at the Boston Opera House last Friday night: dancer Jeffrey Cirio pushed an illuminated box on to the stage, knocked on its door to reveal the delicate Larissa Ponomarenko, and burst into a flurry of robotic movement before crying, “does she like sunshine?”

Elo, a longtime dancer of Netherlands Dance Theater, began his career as a choreographer with his old friend Mikko Nissinen, artistic director of Boston Ballet, by his side. Six years after Elo was appointed resident choreographer of the company, Nissinen decided to create a showcase of Elo’s work in Boston and around the world in an honorary production entitled “Elo Experience.”

The performance was split into 15 movements, eight of which were excerpts from Elo’s established repertoire. The remaining seven movements, woven in between Elo’s featured works, were set to Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s “Piano Concerto No. 1,” its score serving as a kind of soundtrack behind Ponomarenko and Cirio, the evening’s spunky narrators. Elo’s works in themselves were gems, but synthesizing them together into a cohesive night of ballet was an undeniably daunting task.

Elo chose Ponomarenko and Cirio for “Elo Experience” to “dramatiz[e] the discoveries he has experienced in his own artistic journey, to create a complete picture for the audience.” The duo’s flirtatious manner made them a lovable pair—perfect travelers through Elo’s choreographic world who not only danced, but also mimed and narrated throughout the performance. However, the voiced narration detracted from the beauty of their performance rather than guiding it. From their babbled call and response—when Ponomarenko says, “How fast was I going, officer?”, Cirio collapses to the floor and does the “worm”—to the cast’s comical rendition of Frank Sinatra’s “Fly Me to the Moon,” Elo’s narrative element lacked the nuance and attention to detail that characterize his choreography and musical selections. On the contrary, it seemed out of context with the rest of the work and was sometimes a disservice to the dancers’ artistry. Often, the comical narration was laid over Tchaikovsky’s score in a way that seemed to mock the gravity of his composition.

The strongest work of the evening’s first half was “PLAN,” an excerpt from Elo’s 2004 work “Plan 2 B” previewed at the Harvard Dance Center this February. Lia Cirio, Jeffrey’s sister and the star of “PLAN,” distinguished herself among the company’s women with agility and femininity combined with thrilling athletic strength. Her dynamism was complemented by Isaac Akiba, whose lilting turns and flawless technique managed to shine even through Elo’s contemporary movement.

In a bold gesture of informality and accessibility, Elo directed Cirio and Ponomarenko to begin dancing on the stage during the intermission as the audience filtered into the hall—yet another way Elo led the audience through his choreographic world. The first of Elo’s excerpts that followed, a piece entitled “DOUBLE” that was set to the music of Philip Glass and Vladimir Martinov, opened an undeniably stronger second half. With bold red lights and a strong percussive rhythm, Elo’s choreography here was noticeably more balletic than modern, with split-second leaps and unforgiving leg extensions that revealed Boston Ballet’s classical virtuosity. Lorna Feijóo masterfully portrayed the affective qualities of Elo’s choreography by displaying an emotional intensity too often lost in the shock-and-awe athleticism used as a crutch by some of Elo’s contemporaries.

Elo’s “BLUE” continued in this more balletic vein, with the tutu-clad women transforming undulating modern movements into classical arabesque lines. Often, the work’s musicality and geometric formations seemed just a breath away from Balanchine’s neoclassicism. Throughout the evening, though particularly in “BLUE,” John Lam portrayed Elo’s style with a striking elasticity that did not forsake his articulation, but rather distinguished it among his fellow dancers.

The lighting design was as much a part of Elo’s artistic vision as his choreography. With Boston Ballet’s lighting designer John Cuff, Elo framed all three sides of the stage by hanging harshly lit rectangular panels that flashed from deep red to blue and even to white. However, Elo outdid himself in “LOST” when two metal beams, hung with stage lights and arranged in a cross, suddenly lowered from their usual posts high above the stage to hover mere feet over his dancers. The menacing, metallic structure of lights seemed almost predatory over the white-clad women, vaguely reminiscent of the white swans in Petipas’ classical masterpiece, “Swan Lake.” Dancing to the dream-like music of Bernard Herrmann, the Boston Ballet’s women evoked a delicate vulnerability that contrasted the looming lights and their forceful male counterparts. “LOST” presented Jorma’s vision at its best, and his lighting transformed his choreography from a spectacle into an experience.

The eye-popping lighting design, like the narrative element, the mime, and the unconventionally casual opening to the second act, was part of Elo’s congenial effort to portray a sense of connectedness as Boston Ballet’s dancers traced his choreographic journey: Elo worked to bring his audience along for the ride in every possible way. “Elo Experience” was a superlatively focused and exhaustive synthesis of contemporary work. Boston Ballet should be lauded for asking their audience not simply to admire the athleticism and beautiful physique of their dancers, but to push their perspectives in an altogether refreshing direction. And for that, I can stand some playful reinterpretation of Tchaikovsky’s “Piano Concerto No. 1.”

—Staff writer Alyssa A. Botelho can be reached at abotelho@college.harvard.edu.

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