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Boston Ballet dazzles with “Chroma”

Susan Saccoccia
Susan Saccoccia
Boston Ballet dazzles with “Chroma”

The Boston Ballet is presenting two 20th-century masterpieces by George Balanchine and a company premiere of “Chroma,” a 2006 work by Wayne McGregor, choreographer of the Royal Ballet in London.

The freshness of the classics stands out despite — or maybe because of — the explosive energy of  “Chroma,” which hammers the audience with the hard work of dance. On stage through May 12 at the Boston Opera House, the three-part program offers an alternately dazzling, serene and fierce taste of movement and showcases the stunning versatility of the Boston Ballet.  

Conducted by its music director, Jonathan McPhee, the Boston Ballet Orchestra manages the shift between eras and moods with as much bravura as the dancers.

Opening the program is “Serenade” (1934), the first work in America by Balanchine, who had settled in New York from St. Petersburg, Russia, to join visionary art patron Lincoln Kirstein in creating a ballet company in America. Their collaboration led to the 1948 debut of the New York City Ballet, with Balanchine as its ballet master and principal choreographer until his death in 1983. Along the way, he took four centuries of dance tradition and reshaped classical ballet as an American art form.

“Serenade” gently deconstructs classical ballet, streamlining its language with modernist elegance while retaining its nobility. Dancing to a yearning old-world score by Russian composer Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, the ensemble crafted by Balanchine dissolves formal hierarchies. It is a democracy in the making. Writing in “The Wall Street Journal,” former Balanchine dancer Toni Bentley describes “Serenade” as “the Rosetta Stone for a new kind of dancer, the American classical dancer.”  

Just six men are among the ballet’s 26 dancers. The women’s costumes are faithful to the originals designed by Barbara Karinska, which show the athletic legs of the ballerinas beneath layers of nearly transparent, floating tulle.

The dancers intertwine into a succession of sculpted forms. Whether moving in unison or as individuals, they infuse grace without ornamentation into every gesture.

Balanchine’s choreography takes a dramatic turn inward to the psyche as well as forward toward a more streamlined future, in the final movement. A ballerina unleashes her chignon into a blond mane and drops to the floor, seemingly dead. A male dancer enters carrying a female dancer on his back. She shields his eyes with her hands — she is the ghost-like double of the inert woman. As the male bends, she flutters her arms like a bird, evoking an angel of death. Lit by Ronald Bates and John Cuff, the arresting scene suggests both an end and a beginning.  

In “Chroma,” Boston Ballet’s dancers and orchestra show their prowess with a 21st-century piece that is decades away from the calm classicism of the Balanchine works.

“Chroma,” the Greek word for color, is an element that is notably underplayed in this work. The 10 dancers — five men and five women — wear short, flesh colored costumes by Moritz Junge. With such muted attire, the focus is on bodies and muscles.

The subtle palette extends to the set by John Pawson, lit by Lucy Carter and Simon Bennison. Rectangular panels in neutral tones frame the dancers, who step over the edge of one panel to enter the dance floor. This stylized entrance is one way that “Chroma” explores the horizon between being on and off stage.

Neutrality applies to the flat affect of the dancers, whose faces remain inexpressive even as they perform astonishing feats, extreme backbends and then unravel into an aloof, runway-style strut as they leave the dance floor.

What isn’t subtle is the driving score by Joby Talbot, arranged by Jack White of the White Stripes, a torrent of percussive electronica that accompanies the almost violent choreography. Yet “Chroma” builds in lyrical passages too; solos and duets with long, slow leg extensions are accompanied by chamber segments of the piano, cello and violin.

The audience responded to “Chroma” with repeated standing ovations. While the execution of Boston Ballet’s dancers and orchestra was admirable, the relentless focus on the sheer arduousness of dance seemed too small a tale to tell.  

Balanchine’s “Symphony in C” (1947) glitters with the hard brightness of jewels. Its harmonious couplings and ensemble formations draw the dancers into geometric patterns that increase in size and complexity, climaxing in an exultant grand finale of 52 dancers.

Dancing to a score by George Bizet against a blue backdrop, the women wear stiff white tutus, with hair pulled back into garland-encircled chignons. The ensemble’s dozen men are attired in blue velvet jumpsuits.

Uniformly clad, each dancer is part of a larger whole that celebrates the joys of discipline and human interaction that are at the heart of dance. They fire off precise pirouettes and whirring footwork and, linked in a human chain, they loop under each other’s arms with the ease of children in a schoolyard game. Yet this is grown-up pleasure, with full control and mastery on display.

 Four tiara-crowned prima ballerinas, one per movement, render various solos and duets. Groups grow in size while repeating patterns set by the preceding, smaller band of dancers.

In contrast to its simple color scheme, the panorama of white and blue figures becomes an increasingly complex composition. It’s as if through his dancers, Balanchine is saying, “Can you top this?”