This past weekend, my family and I went to see the latest dance program at Boston Ballet, Chroma. We are season subscribers and typically attend anywhere from 3 to 5 programs per year. I like to go and support my adopted hometown’s premier dance company. And, as a former dancer who still occasionally wishes that genetics had played in her favor to allow for even considering a career in the field, I like to go and think of What Might Have Been.
The program consisted of three separate pieces, Serenade, by George Balanchine, Chroma, by Wayne McGregor, and Balanchine’s Symphony in C. I’d seen the two Balanchine works several times, and was interested to see how Chroma, a more recent piece, would compare and contrast.
Serenade is not, per se, a story ballet, but as my husband said at the first intermission, there’s definitely a story there. Everything about this ballet, the first that Balanchine choreographed in the U.S., is iconic.
The ballet opens with 16 women onstage in flowing translucent tutus, looking out over upraised right arms. As the music continues, they slowly lower their arms toward their faces, then down into lower first position. Then as one, they turn out their feet from parallel into first position, a definitive This is Ballet moment. They then dance in various combinations, with dancers running on and offstage (reflecting the fact that Balanchine had different numbers of women to work with day by day as he was choreographing the piece).
As I mentioned, Serenade is plotless, but it has a story archetype – Woman loves Man, but Man can only stay a while before he is taken offstage at the end, sightless, by Otherworldly Woman who may be Death. Once he leaves, Woman (also known as the Waltz Girl) is lifted up by a group of dancers, and carried off backstage left by three men, her back arched. The group of dancers follows her in the same pose. I spent most of this ballet in or near tears, because it’s just so dang gorgeous. And resonant. Every movement and formation just looks right.
The second piece was Chroma, by Wayne MacGregor. In this piece, 5 men and 4 women, all in fairly androgynous outfits, push the limits of technical dancing within a stark white box, while Joby Talbot’s music blares.
So, um, um. Hmm. The technical execution of this piece was incredible. The orchestra, which included an extra five percussionists, did a great job playing the music. The dancers, clearly having the time of their lives, got to show off the full extent of their training. Incredible feats of partnering, jumping and flexibility abounded.
But (you knew there was a “but,” right?) there just wasn’t much THERE there. There was no driving theme behind the dancing. I’m not saying I need a story, but there was no idea to bring it all together and explain why these dancers were in this space doing these movements. And the music, while well played, sounded like Philip Glass wandered into an old James Bond movie and got really excited about throwing in some extra orchestration.
Sometimes that’s my issue with some contemporary ballet choreographers – they throw every move in the book into a piece, set it to some avant-garde music and expect that everyone will then think it’s really profound. This is not to say that all contemporary dance-makers are like this, or to paint myself as a complete reactionary, but there are definitely a few out there.
We had our palate cleansed at the end with more Balanchine, his Symphony in C, originally set on the Paris Opera Ballet in 1947.
I remember once reading a review that compares this ballet to a glass of fine champagne, and it is absolutely true. Set to Georges Bizet’s Symphony in C, it is a classic tutu ballet, with all the Balanchine touches that distinguish it from its 19th-century forbears. The most touching section is the second movement adagio, with a beautiful pas de deux that features the ballerina, holding her partners’ hands and touching her nose to her knee in arabesque penchee. (In English, that means her back leg is raised and pointing toward the sky.)
There’s no story to this ballet either, and the main theme seems to be, Look I made a beautiful ballet with beautiful tutus to beautiful music. But somehow it’s still more poignant, more touching, than Chroma, AKA (to me, at least) as The Hole in the Middle of the Program.