NAC Dance: Boston Ballet presents a woman’s journey

A scene from ELA, Rhapsody in Blue by the Boston Ballet. Photo: Rachel Neville Photography

Paulo Arrais was born in a very Catholic city in central Brazil, a very conservative part of that Latin American country. For him, staying Brazil didn’t fit. He said, in an interview with ARTSFILE that, at age 13, he was already planning his escape. His way out was dance. Today he is a principal dancer with the Boston Ballet.

“I have lived in many places and I have seen many different cultures and Latin America is very misogynistic and homophobic.

Paulo Arrais. Photo: Liza Voll

“Growing up (in Brazil) as a dancer was extremely hard.” It took courage to do it.

His journey out of Brazil and around the world has put him in contact with some great choreographers — people such as William Forsythe, Jiri Kylian, Paul Lightfoot, Liam Scarlett and Alonzo King. All of this life experience has informed his art and his sense of humanity.

On Nov. 7, the Boston Ballet will begin three days of performances at the National Arts Centre and one of the pieces will be Arrais’ own ELA, Rhapsody in Blue. Ela is Portuguese for she. It’s on the same bill as  William Forsythe’s Blake Works I and Jerome Robbins’ Fancy Free.

ELA is his first main stage choreography. He has done other smaller works including his first, a pas de deux he calls Work in Progress because it has kept evolving.

“I really didn’t know what I was doing here. I called the piece Work in Progress because I didn’t want to be tied down to an end product. I thought the piece would be always evolving.”

These days, Arrais is recovering from an injury to his Achilles tendon. And he said he believes he is in “a transitional point in my career right now. Boston Ballet is a very young company and I am becoming one of the seniors.

“I think it is only natural that I start to pass along what I know and what I have learned.

“I have danced all over the world. I have worked with many people and I have learned a lot. I don’t want to move away from my dancing career so I think it’s natural that I step into a leadership role now. I also love having my vision transformed on the stage through choreography. I also really enjoy coaching and moulding other dancers, helping them get to where they want to get.”

In addition, his work around the world has helped him evolve a choreographic vision of his own.

The piece that will be performed at the NAC started at the urging of Boston Ballet’s artistic director Mikko Nissinen who had been trying to get someone to create to the George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue for some time.

In 2017, Nissinen asked Arrais if he wanted to give it whirl.

Arrais had already been forming an idea about something “political.”

“I listened to the music and I saw how theatrical the  music is. I thought it would be really good to create something … inspired by the work of John Cranko,” whose work is very raw and natural and Arrais says he was very much inspired by that.

“I started to create with a woman dancer in mind. The piece would revolve around her and her experience and her physical movement.

“With #MeToo, women have come forward and are fighting for their rights. I was inspired. I am hoping for a better future, so I’m analyzing the path of the feminine.”

This work is about identity and power. As a gay man of Brazilian descent living in the U.S., he understands both sides of the gender divide.

“I have experienced that as well. I am gay but I’m still a Latino guy.

“Growing up and not knowing, and then knowing and feeling ashamed, then stepping into society. I came into my skin in my late 20s. It is a similar path to how the feminine (side) has evolved over history.

The ballet is also about liberation. There is a central female figure who, through the process of the dance, emerges into her full self. There is, through the piece, this struggle with the masculine. It’s a dynamic tension that is always there.

“If this piece makes people feel something, it has done its job. People might not agree with the work I am putting on stage but I am trying to show the journey of the feminine which is not easy.”

Nor is it easy for a man to let his feminine out, Arrais said. It’s hard for a man to be vulnerable, he added, because then he is weak. “I don’t agree with that.”

There are acts of violence portrayed in the piece, he said, “because that is part of the journey of the feminine.”

He discussed this with one of the dancers who noted that when women walk alone at night they are nervous. They think about it all the time, she told him.

“That is something that I don’t experience as a man. That’s something I would rarely experience. Now I understand it.”

In the piece there are 16 dancers on stage, only one is a woman.

“My goal was to add to her power. Her strength as an individual is stronger alone.”

As he convalesces from his injury, Arrias is thinking about another project.

“I have had lots of time to focus on choreography, so I dove into it. Right now I am applying for a grant to explore text and speech and to combine it with dance. That’s where I want to go. I would love to create something in the future that integrates text. To do that I need to study because theatre has to be well done.

“(Mixing text and dance) can be a very powerful tool when done well.” It’s a risk, but really he’s been taking risks since he was a young boy dancing in Brazil.

“I’m not afraid to take a risk. If I don’t take a risk, I’ll never know.”

Meanwhile, he’s about to starting dancing more seriously now.

“I am starting to jump again and going back to work and I’m petrified.” But the show must go on. He expects his first role will likely be in the Nutcracker. He expects to be back to full power in February.

Boston Ballet
Where: Southam Hall
When: Nov. 7-9 at 8 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.