In Boston Ballet’s program Bella Figura, at the Boston Opera House through this Sunday, all three pieces stretch conventional notions of what is beautiful. William Forsythe’s The Second Detail is set to a booming electronic score by Thom Willems and mixes in hyper-extensions and lazy postures with classical technique. Jirí Kylián’s Bella Figura manages to demonstrate the beauty in hunched shoulders. And Helen Pickett’s new ballet Part I, II, III begs the audience to find beauty in a pas de deux in which one dancer (Kathleen Breen Combes) is often confined to the wobbling, tentative steps of an infant.
When the curtain rises on The Second Detail, the stage looks leeched of color: the leotards worn by the dancers are an icy, bleached blue, the walls are muted gray. Along the back edge of the stage is a row of simple black stools, where throughout the piece dancers perch to rest.
It feels both stylish and vaguely unformed — an aesthetic that runs through the piece, from the attitude of the dancers to the block-lettered “THE” placed challengingly on the lip of the stage. A lot of the movement is almost abrasively big: legs that climb so high they no longer seem connected to a body, piqué arabesques just on this side of control, and showy, outstretched arms that rival those of self-satisfied gymnasts as they stick their landings. This sort of showiness is offset by the often-funny ennui displayed by the dancers, who step casually out of triple pirouettes, their arms still swinging round their hips with the momentum of the turn, or whip off amazing technical feats before slouching off to the sides of the stage. Willems’ score, too, is both defiantly audacious and slightly aimless, sometimes sounding like fading music at a creaky carnival.
Near the end of the piece, a woman (Lorna Feijóo), dressed in a white, loosely fitting dress, enters; her steps are not especially different from those of the other dancers, but she dances them with more conviction. For a while, she weaves through the crowd — until the “THE” is knocked over, and the ballet ends.
Helen Pickett’s PART I, II, III (choreographed to music by Arvo Pärt — a composer whose work has become trendy in dance in recent years) plays with some interesting ideas, but the three movements do not cohere. The first, LAYLI O MAJNUN is a pas de deux inspired by an old Persian love story; the second, called Tsukiyo, is also for two dancers, and is inspired by a Japanese fairytale. Both of these sections seem almost unreal: LAYLI O MAJNUN is danced on a black stage (in the first minutes, the two dancers are often hidden by the darkness), and in Tsukiyo a white fog rolls over the floor and down into the orchestra pit. Misa Kuranaga and John Lam (in the first section) dance their doomed love story with passion, and Pickett gives them some lovely moments (at one point, Lam holds an arm around Kuranaga’s waist, and she undulates her arms as if flying), but the piece doesn’t quite work structurally. This is perhaps due in part to the score, which is filled with ominous-sounding chords that change neither the direction of the music nor the arc of the dance. In Tsukiyo, Kathleen Breen Combes’ quavering movements fit the pale, vibrato-less music (Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel) — but again, Pickett does not quite transcend the minimalist repetitiveness of the notes and the piece falters.
The third section, Tabula Rasa, is more in the vein of a Forsythe piece — and while it is well-constructed and quite enjoyable to watch, it doesn’t really fit with the more sentimental (and narratively inclined) beginning of the ballet. Nevertheless, it demonstrates Pickett’s skill as a choreographer — she simply needs to sharpen her vision.
Vision is something Bella Figura has in spades. Kylián’s use of the stage is fantastic: he deftly uses the black curtains to define, and redefine, the space. They are wrapped around a dancer’s body like a sheet, dropped down in front of a row of dancers (and gathered into their waiting arms), grasped by two women as they keel backwards, hinging at their knees. It is clever, certainly; more importantly, it brings the space to life — as much a evolving creature as the dancers.
For throughout the piece, the dancers change. Sometimes, this is obvious: while at the beginning of the piece, almost all of them are clad in chic practice clothes, they later change into voluminous red skirts (with their torsos nude), and later back again. More subtly, they change each other. In one amusing section, a man presses down repeatedly on his partner’s shoulder (a gesture reminiscent of countless ballet teachers). In another, two women (tightly framed by those black curtains) kneel opposite each other, their red skirts spread out on the floor: when one reaches forward with her hand, the other pulls back.
In the hands of a lesser choreographer, the dichotomies in this piece could become too rigidly defined. (Even Forsythe’s woman-in-white almost doesn’t work). Yet Kylián seems not to elevate one type of beauty over another. And in the final section of the piece, even that tense shoulder leads to a quietly beautiful moment between the two dancers, human and tender.
For more information, visit bostonballet.com.