Review: Boston Ballet’s triple bill has two hits, one miss

The Boston Ballet is performing at the National Art Centre on Nov. 8 and 9. Photo: Rachel Neville Photography

Boston Ballet is serving up an all-American triple bill at the NAC this week. It’s a diverse but uneven program, with two solid hits and an unfortunate miss. 

It’s hard to go wrong with Jerome Robbins and Leonard Bernstein’s’ Fancy Free from 1944, the precursor to the Broadway hit On the Town. As Robbins’ three sailors on shore leave in the Big Apple, Patric Palkens, Isaac Akiba and Paul Craig perfectly captured the choreography’s angular, jazzy exuberance and preening masculinity. As the brunette, Nina Matiashvili showed plenty of fire and fighting spirit (in this #metoo age, the scene where the three sailors are pawing at her and blocking her escape feels more threatening than fun.)

Tall redhead Haley Schwan brought long-limbed elegance to her role,  but Dawn Atkins needed more Betty Grable-grade oomph as the blonde bombshell. Led in the pit by conductor Mischa Santora, NACO brought plenty of  Midtown glitter and just enough grime to Bernstein’s snappy score.

Company principal dancer Paulo Arrais premiered his ELA, Rhapsody in Blue earlier this year. Featuring a single female soloist surrounded by men, the work is meant as a sort of tribute to strong women and female empowerment. But it’s so thematically weak and stuffed with clichés it ends up having the opposite effect.

The woman (danced on Thursday by Maria Alvarez, wearing an unnerving beauty pageant smile throughout) only exists in relation to the men, never as her own independent person.

When she’s not being worshipped and adored by the male corps — whose shirtless tuxedos give them the louche appearance of Chippendale dancers — she’s being abused and dominated by the Bad Boyfriend figure, or serving as a nurturing Madonna to her male child (on opening night it was Derek Dunn, whose splendid, soul-bared-open dancing transcended the uninspired material). 

Arrais’s choreography wasn’t helped by what had to be the sorriest, sloppiest, most anemic performance of Gershwin’s Rhapsody by a pianist I’ve ever heard in my life. Boston-based Freda Locker has no sound or power to speak of, and there were more wrong and missing notes than I could count. Even with the strict constraints of live ballet, I can name half a dozen pianists in Ottawa — more if you include Montreal — who could come in on an hour’s notice and play the living snot out of this piece. Even as accompaniment the Rhapsody needs flair and fireworks. I hate to say it, but a recording would have served the company better.

The company needed to end the evening with a win and, happily, this materialized in the form of William Forsythe’s Blake Works I.

Created in 2016 for the Paris Opera Ballet and set to an irresistible soundtrack by British pop-electronica star James Blake, it’s a gorgeous, richly textured, essentially light-hearted piece where explosive virtuosity is barely contained within pure, classical lines.

Simple, barre-exercise shapes dissolve into flashy but precise solos and spectacular partnering with lightening quick changes of position. Dressed in smokey blue, the dancers exude haughty aplomb. Forsythe makes you feel like you’ve accidentally walked into a club where everyone is way too cool and sexy for you, but it’s so wonderful you don’t want to leave.

The performance repeats Friday and Saturday.

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Natasha Gauthier has been covering classical music in Canada and the US for more than 20 years. She was the classical critic at the Ottawa Citizen, and was one of the founding critics of Montreal's HOUR Magazine. She has served on the classical music and dance juries for the Governor General's Performing Arts Awards. You can also read her at her blog, Natasha has a BA in Journalism from Concordia University.