Choreographers George Balanchine and Wayne McGregor — whom the Boston Ballet brought together in its program “Chroma” Thursday night — make strange bedfellows. And it’s not because Balanchine is a classicist and McGregor is an Experimentalist, with a capital “E.”
It’s because Balanchine’s dances no matter how old have the nuances and musicality to withstand time and look new. McGregor’s, if his offering “Chroma,” made in 2006 for London’s Royal Ballet, is any indication, operate on a single high-pitched plane that dates them.
There are many in the Boston Ballet audience who would disagree with that. Indeed, I heard employees for the troupe saying during intermission that the standing ovation for “Chroma” was the longest they had ever seen. But still, the newcomer cannot hold a candle to the master.
That’s not to say that “Chroma” doesn’t pack a kinesthetic punch. It does — to the gut. Set to an aggressive, now buzzing, now almost plaintive score by Joby Talbot, with music arrangements by Jack White of The White Stripes, “Chroma” thrives on angular knotty movement that sets still points against percussive limbs and contorted bellies, roiling hips and jammed joints.
“Chroma” is a walk on the dark side, a gnarly clash of the sexes with misogynist undertones, despite architect John Pawson’s luminous set: A white box encasing the stage on three sides, with a rectangular opening upstage that the dancers enter through. It’s like you’re in a constant clench or holding your breath for the duration of the piece. Men jerk women’s legs vertically up to their ears, or grab them beneath the thighs in a craggy lift.
The Boston Ballet dancers astonish with their master of the choreography, contorting this way and that with remarkable intensity. Standouts include Lia Cirio and partner Lasha Khozashvili, Kathleen Breen Combes with Bradley Schlagheck, Misa Kuranaga with Jeffrey Cirio, and Whitney Jensen with Paulo Arrais.
Balanchine’s lyrical “Serenade,” (1934), which opens the program, is the opposite. It’s a neo-Romantic masterpiece of dissolving and emerging patterns to a Tchaikovsky score that shifts from sprightly to plangent. Abstraction gives way to meaning as Ashley Ellis, earthly and ethereal at once, collapses and rises again, to finally be carried off aloft by three men who may represent an angel of death. Ellis is light as air as Nelson Madrigal lifts her, and executes backbends that stretch from here to tomorrow.
“Serenade” is the first dance Balanchine choreographed in this country, and there’s an innocence in its classroom ethos and ratio of women to men (not many men showed up in class in those days). The corps de ballet initially seem to be rushing to keep pace with the music, but by the dance’s somber close, they’re up to speed.
Misa Kuranaga brings a catch to your throat as she spins air into butter or springs skyward in neat jumps. Configurations of dancers coalesce and evaporate like mist in spring.
Balanchine’s exuberant “Symphony in C” closes the program. A dance for 52 set to music by Georges Bizet, “Symphony in C” is a celebration of classicism. Couples and groups shrink and expand the stage space, the women in glittering white tutus. It was a shock to see dancers Kathleen Breen Combes, Lia Cirio, and Whitney Jensen exude such delight after their immersion in “Chroma.”
It’s a testament to the prowess of the Boston Ballet dancers that they can switch gears convincingly and with such aplomb.