Boston Ballet’s ‘Genius at Play’: Nostalgic and Modern

Words by Kathryn Boland | Images by Rosalie O’Connor, courtesy of Boston Ballet

Boston Ballet’s season opener Genius at Play was a bill of three works choreographed by Jerome Robbins; whimsical and playful, yet also cleverly crafted and innovative for their time. While there were elements that could be concerning and distasteful to a modern audience — particularly moments in Fancy Free that seemed to demonstrate how much cultural norms, relating to the behavior between men and women, have shifted in the sixty or seventy years since Robbins’s peak creative time — there were also elements of more pleasing nostalgia.

Stepping into the Boston Opera House, my eyes filled with gold embossing and sparkling chandeliers, and I felt a bit nostalgia for a time when seeing dance meant getting dressed up to go see the main local dance company. The night opened with a Leonard Bernstein overture, beginning with fortissimo intensity and later shifting into a lilting piano. With the curtains slightly parted and a banner with a graphic honoring the composer, it was a nice homage to the iconic relationship between these two men.  

Interplay opened with a lone dancer on stage, Patric Palkens, running in and then bending into deep plie. More dancers joined from the wings: one, and then two more, and then many more. The group accumulated in a very enticing way, continuously shifting into new lines and circular formations, never staying in one formation for long. The balletic movements (such as attitudes and battements) offered a clean, strong base for entertaining gestural movements and acrobatic tricks like dancers leap-frogging over each other.

Costumes of the same cut, but in varying colors (designed by Santo Loquasto), created the effect of a rainbow shimmering all across the stage. Along with the bright and dynamic score from Morton Gould, the movement and design made for a very pleasing visual package.

The use of cannon to create waves of movement in the middle part of the piece was intriguing. In one instance eight dancers in a diagonal line shifted their gaze from  upstage left to downstage right in quick succession. Then came a quick transition of port de bras and gaze back to upstage right. Later came another “wave” with pirouettes in cannon. Throughout the piece, and in these moments, each dancer’s personality and unique movement signature shone through.

Even more of this personality was found through colloquial movements and gestures evoking flirtation — hip undulations, bum shakes facing the audience, and shoulder shimmies — and comical facial expressions. Even more sense of character came through in a duet from Misa Kuranga and Patrick Yocum. Lights were lowered to bring on a more dramatic, night club-like atmosphere. Jazzy footwork and pencil turns, more grounded into the floor than the balletic movement elsewhere into the piece, were sultry and enticing. Another significant atmospheric change came with the last section, when the lighting was brought back up to full brightness and the entire cast of eight returned. In one memorable part of this section, the dancers chose members of the group to be on their “team” — a scene reminiscent of picking teams on the playground. This element underlined the strong sense of play throughout in the piece. Through both simple play and complex movement, I was reminded that both fun and refinement can co-exist. This realization then brought on  a nostalgia for the dances of old: of Fred and Ginger and Gene. In an age that can feel chaotic socially and politically, this respite of magical thinking was welcome.

After the more plot-driven, girl-chasing Fancy Free, the night closed with Glass Pieces, an abstract feast of color and sound. It contained Robbins’s signature blending of gesture and more technique, without the theatricality of the former two pieces. After the now famous intermediary sections which feature the large cast executing walking patterns, two pas de deux were compelling in their ability to offer both expansive size and detailed nuance. Viewing all three works together, it was clear to me that Robbins was a “genius at play.” What was also clear was the notion that experiencing his work as citizen of 2018 must be quite different from viewing it as a citizen of his time. We can honor tradition, but we must continue to see it with new eyes. Only then, can art move forward in time with us.

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