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‘Winter Experience’ Review: Boston Ballet Brings Warmth and Light to the Winter Cold

María Álvarez and Boston Ballet in Helen Pickett's Petal.
María Álvarez and Boston Ballet in Helen Pickett's Petal. By Courtesy of Liza Voll / Boston Ballet
By Selorna A. Ackuayi, Crimson Staff Writer

Not unlike the sun reflecting off of the snow on a cold February morning, three ballets shone brightly during Boston Ballet’s Winter Experience, which ran from Feb. 22 through March 3.

The show featured “To Be One,” “Petal,” and a restaging of the Russian ballet “Raymonda” — “To Be One” and “Raymonda” both celebrated their world premiere on the opening night of the show.

With no time for the audience to take in the scene, “To Be One” — choreographed by Helen Pickett — began immediately as the curtain rose, revealing a set built to look like an open-faced box with luminescent walls framing the back and sides of the stage. The audience was swept into the scene as if just happening to peer into a window at the performers — an image the ballet’s set emphasized seamlessly. Female dancers wore thin white dresses, and the male dancers wore sheer white tunics and shorts made of the same lightly holographic material.

Boston Ballet soloist My’Kal Stromile danced a solo to soft clarinet music piercing through an underlying staccato beat, his movements mirroring the music with equally fluid and sharp accents. Stromile’s solo embodied the choreographic themes accentuated throughout the entire piece — diaphanous, floaty movements interspersed with small and unexpected bursts of technical articulation.

The ballet featured intentional épaulment, such as distinct eye contact and nuanced head placements, that emphasized the theme of interpersonality within the piece. Many movements included tactile interactions between dancers, one pas de deux featuring a moment in which Boston Ballet principal John Lam placed his ear on his partner’s leg before ending the duet with a hug.

“To Be One” was a study in human relationality. Dancers not only interacted with each other, but with themselves, flexing and pinwheeling their fingers or caressing their faces as if just discovering their existence as human beings.

Literally and artistically, “Petal” — the second ballet in the show choreographed by Helen Pickett — shined even brighter than “To Be One.” The ballet opened onto the same set from “To Be One,” but now completely lit up with yellow light, contrasting the asylum-like stark brightness of the preceding piece. Female dancers appeared on the stage wearing yellow halter leotards and male dancers wore teal tights, the vibrant colors complementing each other and the light shining from the stage. Celebratory synth and string music accompanied by distinct drum beats created a joyous ambience within the piece that evoked the bustle and growth of springtime. Throughout the piece, the dancers bloomed, exhibiting jumps and port de bras — a ballet term that means “carriage of the arms” — that originated from the center of the body and expanded outwards like a flower bud erupting into petals. At one pivotal moment in a pas de deux between Boston Ballet principals Lia Cirio and John Lam, Cirio dove into Lam’s arms in a biomimetic movement that conjured images of sea animals frolicking in the water. This biomimetism continued throughout the piece, with dancers performing graceful pas de papillon, or step-of-the-butterfly, with the same lightness and elegance as the step’s namesake.

Overall, “Petal” brought liveliness to the stage. Duets often featured dancers pushing each other’s arms away playfully or even lightly kicking behind each other’s knees. These child-like elements added lighter contrast to the more contemplative tone of “To Be One.” Pickett’s choreographic style was distinct, and the similarities of some choreographic elements between her two works combined with the fact that the set remained the same presented the risk of the two ballets being indistinguishable from each other. However, the vivid costumes, music, and tone of “Petal” helped it stand apart from “To Be One.”

Inarguably, the showstopper of the night was the world premiere of Mikko Nissinen’s “Raymonda,” a full scale production highlighted by the interdisciplinary use of various media: projections, set pieces, costumes, props, music, and choreography came together expertly to elevate the ballet. Raymonda featured four scenes, each prefaced by a picture-frame bordered screen with the name of the scene projected onto it. Nissinen’s utilization of an introductory screen before each scene of the ballet single-handedly increased the accessibility of the ballet. Instead of having to flip through their programs in the dim lighting of the theater, audience members could understand what was happening in the story ballet while maintaining their gaze on the stage.

The first scene of Raymonda opened with dancers silhouetted against a simple white backdrop that flowed softly in the background. The set on the stage resembled a picture frame that was broken on one side such that the top corner was all that remained. The pale color and the fractured look of the frame cultivated an aesthetic of ancient ruins that expressed liveliness as well, like a painting coming to life.

On the stage, dancers wore muted pastel-colored costumes which glowed subtly beneath the bright lighting onstage. The intentionality of the lighting stood out in the ballet — the lack of temporal specificity in depicting either a daytime or nighttime setting for the ballet added to its timeless feel.

In restaging “Raymonda,” first performed in Russia in 1898, Nissinen set out to highlight the classic choreography of the ballet while modernizing it by omitting themes of racism that were prevalent in the original ballet. This broken picture frame with the pastel-arrayed dancers performing within it accurately represented Nissinen’s intent in bringing a new “Raymonda” to the stage — breaking out of the frame of the traditional story of the ballet and bringing it back to life. The classical choreography and the orchestral music — composed by Alexander Glazunov — brought a refreshing elegance to the show. Between scenes, Glazunov’s music filled the opera house and curated a regal ambience that transported the audience into the palace of Princess Raymonda.

Throughout the ballet, each dancer moved gracefully with intentional and technical expertise that did not appear overly academic. In the fourth and final scene of Nissinen’s “Raymonda,” Ji Young Chae — who danced the role of Princess Raymonda — danced the famous Act III Variation 6 solo, bringing a delicate strength to the celebrated choreography. Her interpretation of the piece was serene but not sad, more declaratory than imposing. Through each movement, Chae portrayed the character of Princess Raymonda boldly and with elegance.

At the end of the ballet, the entire corps de ballet danced alongside Chae and Boston Ballet Principal Jeffrey Cirio — who played the role of Jean, Raymonda’s lover. After the finale, the dancers settled into a final pose as the lights faded. As dancers were silhouetted by a soft light shining from the back of the stage, the scene returned to the painting-like calmness introduced at the beginning of the ballet.

—Staff writer Selorna A. Ackuayi can be reached at selorna.ackuayi@thecrimson.com.

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