The North American premiere of “Obsidian Tear” was quite a night for Finnish artists, featuring performances filled with equal parts darkness and grandeur. This was the Boston Ballet’s opening show for its 2017 season. This production showcases the work of multi-award winning British choreographer Wayne McGregor and Boston Ballet’s Finnish resident choreographer Jorma Elo. McGregor’s beautiful piece features nine male dancers dancing to the haunting music of Finnish composer Esa-Pekka Salonen’s “Lachen Verlernt” and “Nyx.” The second half of the program pairs Elo’s dynamic choreography with the music of Jean Sibelius, the famed Finnish composer, in honor of the centennial of Finland’s independence.
The show opened on a majestic note with an orchestral performance of Jean Sibelius's tone poem “Finlandia.” Daniel Stewart of the Santa Cruz Symphony, who was selected by Salonen himself to serve as guest conductor, led the orchestra. They played this piece with a grandness that brought it to life, with a particularly strong and robust performance from the horn section. At times the music felt slightly too heavy, but on the whole the orchestra did justice to an exquisite piece of music.
McGregor’s “Obsidian Tear” followed the overture, which opened with two bare chested male dancers in billowing pants of black and vibrant scarlet. Their movements were filled with a harshness and suspension that perfectly matched the jutting dissonance in “Lachen Verlernt,” Salonen’s eerie violin solo. During this duet, the dancers constantly mimicked each other, but as soon as the motif became recognizable, they broke away from synchronized movements into entirely unexpected and opposite choreography. The two dancers travelled across the space almost like magnets, with constant pushing and pulling apart. The suspension and control of these movements was impressive, as if the bodies were moving through water with their costumes billowing around them like sails. The title of the piece plays on the two meanings of tear—tear as in weeping, and also as in ripping. Though these two meanings may be gleaned in the choreography, the manner in which they are embedded is deliberately ambiguous. The “ripping” theme seems to appear more prevalently when the rest of the male dancers join the stage. The rest of the nine dancers were also clothed in pants and tunics of black, in various levels of dishevelment. Their movements lacked synchronization, but were characterized by a strength and power that at times felt fatalistic, each movement necessary to propelling the dance forward. There was a constant juxtaposition: At time they swarmed around the dancer in red as if attacking him, at others they seem to envelope and caress in a strangely gentle way as if to make him join them. They also scattered across the stage at astonishing speeds as if shattering, and came together in a lulling swell to perform incredible lifts.
The bare set, with its dark lighting slowly fading to red, was effective, as it focused all the attention on the dancers’ movements—the strange contortions and feats of strength. Irlan Silva, who performed the part of the dancer in red, gave an exceptionally moving performance. During the piece’s climax, he climbed a ramp before being pushed over an abyss by one of the dancers in black. Silva’s demeanor continued this dark theme of fatalism that characterized the performance overall. The resulting performance felt dangerous, violent and enigmatic. The choice of an all-male performance seemed to emphasize this violence, with dancers often appearing like troops in the midst of an ambush.
Elo’s “Fifth Symphony of Jean Sibelius” was much lighter, and a striking contrast to the first part of the performance. Its choreography was distinctly more classical and featured the corps de ballet as well as a range of duets. While the first performance felt strangely cohesive, despite its vastly contrasting rhythms, “Fifth Symphony” did not feel as connected with the music as the first piece did. The individual performances from each pair were beautiful, but not particularly distinctive. As the corps de ballet could sometimes be unsynchronized or unexciting, the primary soloist Ashley Ellis was a breath of fresh air. She brought more life to this piece with her lightness and grace. The production felt short, perhaps because the music did not quite match up to the style of the choreography. For this reason, it did not have the same power that “Obsidian Tear” had.
Altogether, Boston Ballet’s beautiful show is worthy of congratulatory remarks, and showcases the music of the composers it features wonderfully. While “Fifth Symphony” of Jean Sibelius lacked the strength that so distinguished “Obsidian Tear,” the two pieces were equally successful in showcasing the talent of their performers and delighting their audience.