In the spring - well, actually, any time of year - a corps de ballet member’s fancy not so lightly turns to thoughts of featured roles in his or her company’s next production. “Play With Fire,’’ which Boston Ballet will open at the Opera House this Thursday, offers several such opportunities. And the program plays with fire in more ways than one.
Christopher Bruce’s “Rooster’’ (1991), which the company is doing for the first time, is set to eight Rolling Stones hits that include, yes, “Play With Fire.’’ Jirí Kylián’s “Bella Figura’’ (1995), in an encore performance from last May, has actual fire onstage. Jorma Elo’s “Sharp Side of Dark’’ (2002), which Boston Ballet hasn’t done since giving the piece its world premiere, is undergoing substantial changes - and who knows that Elo won’t also put fire onstage, as he did in his 2009 “Sacre du Printemps’’?
Some companies would be playing with fire by featuring numerous corps members alongside their principals and soloists, but not Boston Ballet, where depth has been a trademark over the past 20 years. Still, how does a corps member snag a plum part?
Bradley Schlagheck and Brittany Summer both got duets in the first cast of “Rooster,’’ Schlagheck in “Play With Fire,’’ Summer in “Not Fade Away.’’
“It’s fabulous for someone like me who’s been in the corps for several years and is trying to take that next step,’’ says Schlagheck. “Christopher Bruce came and we did three or four days of workshopping, where they taught different sections of the piece and just had us keep doing it and keep doing it and seeing who would fit in different parts. I really enjoy contemporary stuff because I grew up doing musical theater and things like that. So it’s in my blood and in my body to be doing something to the Rolling Stones.’’
He describes “Rooster’’ as being about “the attitude of the Rolling Stones, guys combing their hair and fixing their collar and fixing their jacket and making sure it looks nice. The whole atmosphere of being like a rooster on a farm. And the girls are the hens on the farm, walking around, choosing who they want and showing off for other people, and then the boys show off for them.’’
Schlagheck will be dancing “Play With Fire’’ with second soloist Ashley Ellis. “It’s about how in the ’70s all these other-side-of-the-tracks hipster guys were crossing over in London and dating all these well-to-do women,’’ Schlagheck says. “The boy is telling the girl, ‘Don’t play with me, I’m from the wrong side of the tracks. I’m bad, you don’t want to mess with me.’ ’’
Summer will join first soloist Joseph Gatti in the humorous, honky-tonk-flavored “Not Fade Away.’’ Bruce, she says, “talked to us constantly about the importance of shifting your weight to make the movement as natural as possible. It has a lot of cause-and-effect relationships where one movement sets up the next, and you have to fully commit to each step to make it as natural as possible. And especially in ‘Not Fade Away,’ the tempo is so fast that you have to work on those connections between movements because you don’t really have a lot of time for anything else.’’
Are the Stones relevant to 20-somethings? “I think they’re still hip,’’ says Summer. “I think they always will be. The music is timeless. We have these rehearsals; you listen to the music for two hours, and then you have it in your head for the rest of the day. Especially in the finale, ‘Sympathy for the Devil,’ I mean, that song is so catchy, even when you’re on the side, you’re still dancing and singing. It’s one of those times where you stop and think, how good is my job just now?’’
“Oh, totally,’’ corps member Sarah Wroth concurs. “We all sit on the side during ‘Ruby Tuesday,’ and you can’t help but sing along. You know all the words. My character isn’t even in that section, but we’re all just sitting there, swaying to the music, while people are working on it.’’
Wroth is in the third cast for “Rooster,’’ so she probably won’t get to dance it this time around. But she was featured in “Bella Figura’’ last season, and she will have the same part again. “It was really a huge deal for me,’’ she says, “and a huge deal for my career, what with it being a premiere for Boston Ballet. It was the first of, hopefully, a long line of great bust-out roles.’’
Her character, she explains, “sort of floats in and out of the piece. I would like to think that she’s offering guidance and strength to different situations onstage, and different pas de deux. I make a pas de deux a trio in one instance. I get to be the third person guiding the couple, I would like to say.’’
Wroth gets particular exposure - more than some audience members may feel comfortable with - as one of two bare-breasted women who do a kind of push-pull duet. “The guidance that we received for that role,’’ she says, “is that it’s a reflection of yourself. It’s as if you were touching a pool of water, and there’s a reaction. And it’s a discovery in that way. It’s a beautiful process of feeling connected to the lady you’re dancing with. The eye contact is very important. It is very much an action-reaction sequence, and you’re never going to see the duet performed the same way twice, because it’s all a matter of how you feel at that time. Do you try to touch your reflection’s kneecap, or do you try to touch your reflection on the shoulder? You’re just out there bathed in light, experiencing the dance.’’
Schlagheck, meanwhile, is also in the first cast of “Sharp Side of Dark,’’ which he says is practically a brand-new piece. “Jorma came in and started working with the dancers, and he said himself that he’s not the same choreographer that he was 10 years ago, so he started changing and re-choreographing.’’
“This is my seventh Jorma piece,’’ Schlagheck says. “We all have a great rapport with him, and I think that, because he’s so comfortable with us, he takes himself to that next step and really experiments with our bodies. Rehearsals are lighthearted, he’s very comedic, and then when he wants something done, he’s like, ‘Again. Again. Let’s do it again. Let’s do it again.’
“And by that time we’re, you know, dying and sweating, at 5:30 in rehearsal, but he’s using us as his pieces of the puzzle. He choreographs to strengths - he’ll choreograph for the first-cast pas de deux, and when it comes to changing it for the second cast, he wants to make it very individualistic, so if you have a strength for doing this and this, he wants it to fit to your body. It brings out the essence of what he wants from the choreography.’’