A broad and vibrant palate of dance: Boston Ballet’s ‘Fall Experience’

Boston Ballet in My'Kal Stromile's 'Form and Gesture'. Photo by Theik Smith, courtesy of Boston Ballet.
Boston Ballet in My'Kal Stromile's 'Form and Gesture'. Photo by Theik Smith, courtesy of Boston Ballet.

CitiBank Opera House, Boston, MA.
October 8, 2023.

As a critic, my late summer comes with investigating and anticipating my favorite companies’ imminent seasons. What works, themes and choreographers will they spotlight? What energies and ideas will emanate from their programming? 

Boston Ballet’s 2023-2024 Season opener Fall Experience signaled a season full of vibrant and multifaceted works. From the staunchly neoclassical to the deeply abstract and mysterious, the program offered a wide palate of choreographic approaches and interests. With intentionality and aesthetic cohesion, each work was satisfying in its own right. 

Kicking off the afternoon was Jorma Elo’s Bach Cello Suites (2015). It’s a work I’ve enjoyed before but with some notable edits this time. The work’s neo-neoclassical atmosphere remained the same, with spare design elements and centering of where music and movement meet. Kinetic pathways felt as resonant as the cello’s long notes, as soft but as full and rich (with Sergey Antonov on cello). 

The work ended with ballerinas lifted and holding wing-like shapes – offering a sense of taking flight into the future and beyond the proscenium’s confines. That’s a lovely feeling for a program opener’s ending; there’s a lot more to come. Indeed there would be!

Coming second was Hans van Manen’s Trois Gnossiennes (1982), a stirring duet danced by Chisako Oga and Tigran Mkrtchyan. The score (Erik Satie’s Gnossiennes Nos. 1-3) was central to this work, as well; with the piano right onstage and in different spots as the piece progressed, music itself was arguably a character. Oga and Mkrtchyan’s stellar musicality tied this work’s joining of music and movement off in a neat little bow. 

Much else in the work wasn’t as resolved and assured. The partners at first danced apart – a physical distance that surfaced an emotional distance. When they bridged it later in the work, they softly melted into each other’s weight. As partners, they were both solid and soft: as steady as stone, but as malleable as clay slip. What had been lost as they stayed separated in space? 

Repeated phrases brought to my mind cycles of behavior and interaction; had they been through this before? To end the work, they walked off together. Had they found what they needed to break that cycle and remain connected? The fun part can actually be not knowing for sure. 

The world premiere of Boston Ballet Artist My’Kal Stromile’s Form and Gesture followed. Bold, fresh and highly memorable, the work made me excited to see what singular choreographic visions Stromile will bring to life next. It seems to me that if he wants it, he has a dynamic choreographic career in store. 

The work opened with dancers in silhouette, moving through basic balletic shapes – a very Forsythian aesthetic. This first section of the work, the first of four, reminisced technique class: a dancer’s daily ritual. Repeated, angular movements built a sense of working to refine artistry, peppering tradition with a more personal voice. 

The second section – “Exhibit: chord progressions”, voiceover told us – pulsed with more color, a faster tempo, and a more modern sensibility. Those classroom exercises were beginning to mold and morph into something of their own, something new to grace a stage. Here, with a spare aesthetic and music and movement (again) closely tied, that something new felt quite neoclassical. 

The third section – “Exhibit C: apparatus augmentation”, according to voiceover – made me feel like the creative process at hand had moved far, far along on that path toward burgeoning something of its own. With silvery pancake tutus and smoke rising through red lighting (costume design by Ezra Lovesky and lighting design by Brandon Stirling Baker), I felt like we might have been teleported into a science fiction universe. Form had become gesture: shape and kinetic pathway fully infused with intention and atmosphere, a vision fully realized.

That wasn’t the end, however; “Exhibit D” presented “sketches, graphs, and parabolas” of the work within-a-work that was evolving before us – if one were to stay with that metaphor (in no way required to find something pleasing in the work). The atmosphere at hand was wholly different than that of the prior section, less gripping to the senses in its pure aesthetic daring. Yet it too had an “it” factor of its own. The movement felt even more musical than prior sections, becoming more high-energy and athletic as the score picked up. 

I mused that these last two sections were the results of taking one path or another at a fork in the road of creative process. Stromile’s vision could be something completely different. Audience members to each side of me could have interpreted something completely different. That can be the fun part indeed. 

Speaking of compelling mystery, intention and cohesion, the world premiere of Akram Khan’s Vertical Road (Reimagined) closed the program. The work took its time to ramp up: the movement of a soloist gradually building while the sound of desert wind slowly built. A thoughtfully gradual opening felt only fitting for a work that would rise to such grandeur.

Virtuosic intensity filled the stage before too long, however. An ensemble section reflected Maori men presenting a haka: moving warriors, united and resolute. Movement softened later on – yet, at whatever intensity, Khan’s vocabulary was sinuous and continuous. Strength did not negate receptivity and pliability. 

If any narrative hummed through the work, it stayed shrouded in mystery. Whatever it might have been, whatever it’s been to Khan, the ensemble danced with commanding presence and pure commitment – and that held me. I didn’t need certainty to be spellbound. 

I became truly spellbound toward the work’s end. These later sections stood as an Exhibit A of design acumen and dance artistry together realizing a quite singular vision. A lone dancer (Jeffrey Cirio) stood before a veil, behind it the pristine light of a magical celestial body. The otherworldly sheen of light from behind the veil (original lighting design by Jesper Kongshaug, readapted by Richard Fagan) enhanced the sense of something supernatural at work. 

Cirio appeared reticent to touch the veil, yet undeniably drawn to it. Soon, another dancer moved within it, and Cirio looked on in amazement. Was this a mere mortal before the divine? The narrative remained mysterious, yet spiritual undertones flowed clear and strong. Further ensemble sections progressed; life goes on, through and around our questions of life, death, the divine, and the profane. 

When Cirio again stood alone before the veil, he finally touched it. It fell, rippling towards the stage, and the theater went dark. My mind whizzed with a million questions, ideas, and resonances of intellectual legacies (from the yogic belief of the divine being inside us to Nietzsche’s “God is dead”). 

Undoubtedly, that mind chatter would be different for each audience member. What mattered was something resonating from the stage capable of drawing each audience member to feel or think something (or, even better, some things). Whatever approach or “style” – from Elo’s modernized neoclassical explorationsto Khan’s impressionist movement painting – such impact is what matters. 

That’s a post-postmodern ethos Boston Ballet seems to fully embrace. What results is artistic multiplicity. If Fall Experience is any indication, that kind of multiplicity will infuse Boston Ballet’s 2023-2024 season. I can’t wait to experience it all. 

By Kathryn Boland of Dance Informa.

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