Boston Ballet Presents Rooster, Awake Only, Second Detail

Forsythe, Bruce and Elo
In Various Ballets Genres

Nélida Nassar  11.05.2012

Awake Only
Choreography: Jorma Elo

Music: The Rolling Stones
Choreography: Christopher Bruce

The Second Detail
Music: Thom Willems
Choreography: William Forsythe

Well disposed towards modern dance, the Boston Ballet, under the leadership of its current artistic director Jorma Elo, has pushed the boundaries of classical ballet by shedding the old school emphasis on pointes. The program features three diversely choreographed ballet pieces: Rooster by the British Christopher Bruce, Wake Only by the Finnish Jorma Elo, and The Second Detail by the American William Forsythe. Rooster and The Second Detail were both choreographed for the first time in 1991.

The opening piece, Rooster, originally premiered by the Ballet du Grand Théâtre de Genève while Bruce was its artistic director, has since been performed worldwide. It is a multi-layered work encompassing baby boomer, social, cultural, political and economic themes, drawing inspiration from music, courtly dance, and celebrations. “The Battle of Sexes” could easily have replaced the title Rooster, since this piece examines through dance the ceremony and affectation inherent in the game of sex. 

Bruce creates a successful synthesis of music, visual representation, color, and an emphasis on gender roles. The relationship between dance and music, and the way in which the dance develops, takes its cue from, and mimics, the music itself. Set to eight of the Rolling Stones’s most memorable hits, the individual sections are linked together with themes that bring to life the “Swinging Sixties.”

Melding ballet to rhythms from jazz, folk, tap, vaudeville, social dance, and elsewhere, the dancers refer in many ways to the quotidian world, with the men literally strutting like roosters, stopping to slick their hair Elvis-style, or to adjust their ties. The unsettling repetition of these gestures becomes the metaphor that links all eight pieces. Martha Graham’s techniques as well as those of other choreographers such as Antony Tudor, Glen Tetley, José Limón, and Jerome Robbins influence Mr. Bruce’s choreographic style which one may define as “contemporary.”

Dressed in red and black, Rooster’s dancers evoke a gamut of moods, feelings, and meanings. They symbolize both the positive attributes of life, love, passion, warmth, and power, as well as the negative traits of anger, hatred, death, and destruction.

The references to courtship rituals and to gender-normative behaviors of a rooster or Mick Jagger are both humorous and infuriating. Robert Kretz dancing “Little Red Rooster” is Bruce’s starting point. He has created a preening cockerel, prancing about the stage, with arms folded, symbolizing the elegant but rather chauvinistic young man, his own autobiographical character.

The portrayal of feminine and masculine images is most dramatic and striking in “Paint it Black.” Here the adherence to stereotypical dance norms are discarded. For example, the pas-de-deux is replaced by one male dancer partnered with three women. However, this narrative emphasizes the cockerel’s prowling, voracious, almost violent behavior, rather than more poetic and flirtatious game of seduction. Memorable moments feature John Lam’s dynamic leaps in “Not Fade Away,” and Whitney Jensen’s lunge into the arms of four men. They toss her spinning into the air in “Ruby Tuesday.” For the most part, the women look on with mainly ironic amusement at the male posturing.

The second piece is Jorma Elo’s Awake Only. This is the most traditional ballet among the three, with its classical use of pointe, turnout of the legs and extensions; its graceful, flowing, and precise movements lend the piece an ethereal atmosphere.

Continuing the male-dominated center stage of Rooster, Elo’s three dancers are all male, shown at different phases of their lives – child, young man and adult. The young man in
a dream encounters his past (Liam Larker as the child) and his future (Sabi Varga as the adult). This dance has its roots in literature, mirroring what Mark Twain, Virginia Wolf,
Eric Roth, Tony Morrison and others tell us about growing up and aging. One thinks of
Huck Finn on the river, of King Lear aging, of Toni Morrison’s Sula, and Virginia Woolf’s
day-dreaming mother. The characters’ stories anchor them – and us – in their and – our
own – lives.

Appropriating such topics from literature and adapting them to the movement of the dance using the vocabulary of chassé-croisés, in which partners exchange places and meet by means of a chassé, Elo creates a narrative for this meditative piece. During the silent moments between numbers the dancers interact successively with each other as the
story unfolds.

Costume designer Charles Heightchew has created simple garments to link the three male dancers: pajamas for the little boy, a body suit for the young man, and tights for the adult who was bare-chested. The outfits are made from the same patterned material suggesting that the three dancers are all the same man. While adequate, they lack luster and sheen.

Jeffrey Cirio, portraying the young man, is the principal soloist. He is a poignant and spectacular dancer with a masterful technique and charismatic stage presence. His pas de chat en tournant leap is exquisite as are his intricate jumps, which he lands quietly and smoothly. His high extensions and dynamic turns exude an unmistakable joie de vivre.

This reflective piece, rooted in the Scandinavian soul, lacked the boisterous energy of Rooster and the creative élan of The Second Detail. Its tone and gravitas could not build a crescendo leading to the latter. However, it is well-placed in the program as it elicits a direct and immediate discourse between Elo’s classicism and Forsythe’s de-constructivism.

For the last piece of the evening, we feasted on The Second Detail by William Forsythe, originally choreographed for the National Ballet of Canada. It was introduced the same year with The Loss of Some Detail, a ballet that was part of the Frankfurt Repertory where Forsythe was artistic director before founding his own company.

Forsythe has always reflected on classical ballet, while at the same time attempting to purge its rhetoric. In The Second Detail, he uses the body as a tool for its deconstruction. Louis Horst, who was Forsythe’s composition teacher, said about him: “The American is possessed with the desire to move, to go, to discover new horizons. We are constantly searching for the vital space.  Our eyes are focused towards the distance.”

The Boston Ballet dancers seemed familiar with Forsythe’s language. They were clearly very comfortable in this choreography, which did not hesitate to push their dancers’ bodies to the edge of the possibilities of classical ballet.

The Second Detail starts as a classical piece, to which different elements are gradually added. It results in a competition in sharpness and speed, and the ability to keep pushing the body to new heights, depths and contortions. All the ingredients of Forsythe’s dance are gathered here. Through speed the dancer becomes something else besides a body
with its entrances and retreats. Dancers appear and leave the stage, transcending and transforming it into a place of variable geometry. The gestures borrowed from the world of theatre and stage are summarized by the dancers, organized along a parallel line thwarted by the diagonal of a supposedly mad female character, dressed in white, her lips crookedly painted, looking like a character ejected from a Brechtian scene. Thom Willem’s booming music annoys at times with its rocky sounds. The dancers appear unintimidated by the stark spotlight.

With The Second Detail, Forsythe distances himself from classical ballet, microscopically dissecting it. The male interpreters, Patrick Yocum, Bo Bisby, and John Lam dance in smooth ebb and flow movements. The women, Kathleen Breen Comms and Misa Kuranaga, furiously gnash their pointes like teeth to the ground. It appears to mean that it is time now to make way for the advent of the dancer as the sole author of his movement.

The Boston Ballet dancers are perfect here. The two previous pieces, while good, do
not have the same level of excellence as The Second Detail which impresses one with
its brilliance.

Originally Published in Berkshire Fine Arts

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