The beat goes on: Boston Ballet’s ‘My Obsession’

Chyrstyn Fentroy and Paul Craig in Helen Pickett's '月夜 Tsukiyo'. Photo by Rosalie O'Connor, courtesy of Boston Ballet.
Chyrstyn Fentroy and Paul Craig in Helen Pickett's '月夜 Tsukiyo'. Photo by Rosalie O'Connor, courtesy of Boston Ballet.

Boston Opera House, Boston, MA. 
October 9, 2022.

I had Sonny and Cher “The Beat Goes On” in my head after enjoying Boston Ballet’s My Obsession – the company’s 2022-2023 season opener. The program was framed as presenting stories “that explore our obsessions, devotions and idols” – themes certainly on offer here. Yet, most intriguing to me was a tradition of music and movement coming together through past and present.

From classical music and Balanchine, to more modern music and contemporary ballet, to Rolling Stones hits and social dance-inflected ballet, the program demonstrated just how many ways we can bring together music and movement (and not to mention supportive design elements) to create something ultimately transcendent. We have, we do, and we will; that beat goes on. Defying expectations along the way – as this program also did in spades – can only propel creative innovation and make it all the more impactful. 

The program opened with George Balanchine’s Allegro Brillante (1956), a vibrant and joyful piece on the classical end of the Balanchine canon. The curtain rose on warm lights and dancers wearing baby blue, moving through easeful classical vocabulary. That vocabulary was quick and dynamic, yet more standard classical and less signature Balanchine in gesture and pathways (relative to many of his ballets). 

Yet, the work did demonstrate Balanchine’s typical affinity for musicality, which the ensemble certainly delivered here. They spanned the stage and executed myriad little jumps and zippy turns – meeting the robust Tchaivoksky score with effervescence and delight. Lunges and circles across the space created the clean lines and shapes that deepened the feeling of harmony at hand. Formations were beautifully clear, dancers hitting just the right marks – bringing to life Balanchine’s vision of a precise, intentional stage picture. 

Chisako Oga, wearing pink to distinguish her as a soloist, offered quiet grace even with so much strength and technical command. Also thoroughly enjoyable was an all-ballerino section. On the one hand, I love how 21st century ballet is – bit by bit – breaking down the walls of strict gender conventions within the form. On the other, it’s a true treat to experience a group of virtuosic men execute feats of athletic strength. In a post-postmodern context, anything goes; we can make space for it all. 

Right in line with that ethos of openness and multiplicity, the following piece – Helen Pickett’s 月夜 Tsukiyo brought quite a different atmosphere. Pensive, mysterious and at times even foreboding, the work thoughtfully investigated the tensions and magnetism between two people – all through physicality and musicality. Design also translated much; shining in the back of a dimly-lit stage was a large circular light, like an abstract moon rising right above the horizon (scenery design by Mikko Nissinen and Benjamin J. Phillips). 

Throughout the piece, that big moon’s light allowed for the movement to create entrancing shadows across the stage (original lighting design by John Cuff). Smoke blanketing the stage deepened the mystery that the shadows created. Before that moon was a large chair, where soloist Chyrstyn Fentroy sat as the lights and curtain rose. She stepped down, slowly and cautiously – with a pinch of Bambi legs, gradually finding her footing. 

Her partner, Paul Craig, soon joined her, and – as the piece progressed – helped her to find more stability and strength. As they joined and became increasingly attuned to each other, the score (“Spiegel im Spiegel” by Arvo Pärt) shifted from mysterious and (arguably) ominous to one filled with more hope and luster. 

What Fentroy’s persona might have lacked in strength and stability, she had in spades when it came to fluidity and mobility; her spine rippled and limbs reached out to span wide space, the movement and notes fluidly moving through her. Fentroy adeptly used her length and smooth articulation through joints to meet the wide palette of musical dynamics within those notes. 

With her partner’s support, she then had both: the stability of grounding and the spaciousness of mobility. Her possibilities had expanded as a result. She melted into him through partnering, exhaling to fully soften, yet at other points lifted and supported herself for intriguing – and plain lovely – shapes. Sometimes people in our lives help us to grow without losing what’s already best about us – and those are the people who we do well to keep around, as best we can. 

It wasn’t all roses and rainbows, however; there were tense moments of seemingly diverging wills between the pair. Yet, together, they found the pathways through the body that led them to harmony. The ending spoke to something lasting about what they had found. Craig had, at times throughout the piece, broken Fentroy’s fall and helped her to stand tall (not to mention fly high with lifts). As he walked slowly away from her, however, she danced with bothstability and fluid openness. 

Lights went down on her having found that – certainly a different place than she had been at the beginning of the piece. Whatever the piece might have offered – perhaps different to the senses, hearts, and minds of various audience members – it resonated; they got right to their feet for a standing ovation. In some sort of way, the specific had spoken to the universal. 

Balanchine’s Apollo (1928) came next, another well-known work of his nevertheless outside of Balanchine’s arguably most well-known neoclassical ballets (the “black and white ballets”). I enjoyed this work through a virtual Boston Ballet program in the fall of 2021, and was interested to notice differences between that and the live experience. In 2022, Patrick Yocum as Apollo was perhaps a bit less memorably expressive than Paulo Arrais (who danced the title role in the filmed version) – yet what he did bring was a dignified and noble bearing, supported by full technical prowess, that spoke to Apollo’s divinity. 

Additionally, other audience members laughing helped me to notice comic moments – and those of even sweet humanness – that I hadn’t picked up on when I watched it alone at home. On the other hand, for me the close-ups possible through film also allowed the personas of the characters to translate better. 

Film also allowed the energy of a small cast to better fill the visual picture at hand (notwithstanding the full investment and vibrancy that the 2022 ensemble brought to their characters). Yet, I could imagine the wide open spaces on the stage space like the endless vistas at the peak of Greek mythology’s Mt. Olympus. 

All in all, the work is full of wonderfully crafted moments – cleanly geometric formations and shapes making it sweet candy for dance photographers. Despite compelling layers on a body level, there’s a minimalism to the aesthetic that keeps it all visually definitive. It was also yet another ballet in this program that demonstrated how the union of music and movement can resonate through the decades, the centuries, and beyond. It being another Balanchine work, such musicality is only par for the course. 

Stephen Galloway’s DEVIL’s/eye (March 2022) closed out the program. Offering a true aesthetic experience – of bright light, vibrant movement, and pulsing rock music – it was a pure party in contemporary ballet (and certainly not what everyone thinks of when they think “ballet”!). Galloway set the work entirely to Rolling Stones hits, laying the groundwork for a 1970’s rock and roll vibe. Every aspect of the work helped to build that atmosphere, like puzzle pieces fit together just so to make a cohesive, memorable whole. 

A large upstage set piece lit the dancers (lighting design by Brandon Stirling Baker) – changing with each section to not only different colors, but also shapes (such as circles, reminiscing records). Silhouettes, apart from being visually fascinating, reflected the image of individual caught before blindingly bright stadium lights at a rock concert. Costumes (by Galloway) offered the edgy cuts and colors that one might find at such a concert, in the 1970s specifically, while still stylized and polished enough to complement the dancers’ shapes and lines.

The movement certainly had such classical lines and shapes, in spades – expansive and dynamic at that. Galloway skillfully sewed together that vocabulary with social dance inflections: shaking hips, shoulder rolls, gestures of compelling characterization. Lifts were a bit more on the classical ballet end of the spectrum, but did offer chances for further characterization through how dancers in pas de deux interacted – like friends, or friends who just met, do engage in such settings. 

Non-unison sections reflected individuality, and group sections community – both important elements of being joined together in a celebration of good music, good people, and a good life. Tracks from Rolling Stones concerts – complete with elements like Mick Jagger proclaiming to a raucous audience and improvisational guitar riffing – only deepened this rock concert feel. 

The ensemble attacked it all with (seemingly) all possible joy and kinesthetic commitment, not to mention on-point musicality – making this rock concert in dance come fully to life. One section did feel more contemplative and less of a party atmosphere, being set to a ballad (“Wild Horses”). Part of me wanted more sections like that in the work, yet that might have brought its overall energy to a place that was not aligned with Galloway’s vision. 

The curtain came down on the dancers grooving out, dancing through their own vocabulary (both the classical and the personal). The beat would go on. Through both looking forward into the future and hearing from the past, it certainly can. The heart of music and movement – the sheer joy of creating and sharing art – it will continue. Thank you to Boston Ballet for reminding us of that with My Obsession, a memorable smorgasbord of music and movement from across decades and across far-ranging communities. The beat can reach them all. 

By Kathryn Boland of Dance Informa.

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