“Fredi, can you come closer?’’ Russell Kaiser, one of Boston Ballet’s four ballet masters, is talking to the company’s principal pianist, Freda Locker, asking her to move her piano out of its corner and nearer to the dancers. “Always want to be closer to Stravinsky,’’ he observes, walking over to help her.
Kaiser is in the ballet’s Grand Studio rehearsing George Balanchine’s “Symphony in Three Movements,’’ part of the “Simply Sublime’’ program that the company will open Thursday at the Boston Opera House. This is a piece that, like the Stravinsky to which it’s set, is dear to his heart.
“It was the ballet I asked to be the last ballet I danced,’’ he says, recalling how he finished his performance career with New York City Ballet in 1996. “But it was the middle piece on a program that ended with ‘Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet,’ and somebody in that piece got injured on my final day, and I had to go back into a role that I hadn’t been doing for a while. I did get to dance ‘Symphony’ on my last program; it just wasn’t my last dance.’’
The piece has one of the most arresting openings in all of ballet: The curtain rises on a diagonal line of 16 women in white leotards and ponytails while Stravinsky’s score seems to announce Armageddon. “They’re not what you expect to find together,’’ Kaiser notes. “Which I guess is what I find so beautiful about it. But then, almost instantaneously, you discover how in synch they really are.’’
“Symphony’’ continues with a lot of pony-stepping (reminiscent of Balanchine’s “Rubies’’) and Busby Berkeley-style shenanigans; there’s a commedia dell’arte-like pas de deux, and then an explosively geometric finale. Boston Ballet did the piece just last May - so why has the company programmed it again? “With a ballet this complicated,’’ Kaiser explains, “your first time around, you spend a lot of time just trying to remember where everything goes and what all the counts are. Now that all that is more second nature, the dancers are happy to do it again, to take it to another level.’’
Downstairs in Studio 6, ballet master Shannon Parsley is rehearsing Lia Cirio and Sabi Varga in a duet from the middle piece on the program, Christopher Wheeldon’s “Polyphonia,’’ which premiered at NYCB in 2001, and which Boston Ballet last did in 2007. It’s a work for four couples set to 10 short piano works by György Ligeti that range from a waltz to a scherzo to a wedding dance.
“There’s all these different things going on in the first movement. You can imagine many voices speaking and chaos, and it’s all about disorder,’’ Parsley says. “And then it comes all together at the very end.’’
Like “Symphony in Three Movements,’’ “Polyphonia’’ calls for a lot of counting. Wheeldon, Parsley says, “liked the music being mathematical, and that’s what he told the dancers, that there’s up and down, straight lines, very clean lines. There’s no extra wrist flips or head rolls.’’
Back in the Grand Studio, all eyes are glued to the company’s newest ballet master, former principal Larissa Ponomarenko, as she rehearses the corps in Michel Fokine’s “Les Sylphides,’’ which will open “Simply Sublime.’’ The piece is set to orchestrated versions of Chopin, nocturnes and mazurkas and waltzes. Ponomarenko says she danced it in school, at the Vaganova Academy in St. Petersburg, “and we traveled with that to Amsterdam and Paris and performed it on the Kirov stage.’’ Boston Ballet, on the other hand, hasn’t done “Les Sylphides’’ since 1976, so few dancers in the company have much experience with it.
There’s no real plot to “Les Sylphides’’: A young man, a poet, finds some sylphs dancing in a glade and joins them. But does that mean there’s no story? “I always had a tendency to put a story line in everything,’’ says Ponomarenko. “Every movement, I think, describes something. Otherwise, there is no possibility for a dancer to engage the audience with what they do. Because dancers are really interesting onstage when they are preoccupied with the inner idea. But if they are just going through the movements, it doesn’t ever give the same effect. And I think you can come up with a lot of stories here, even though it is very abstract.’’