LONDON — Boston Ballet has begun its 50th year with a leap of faith. Over the past decade, artistic director Mikko Nissinen has taken the company on tour to Spain, South Korea, Canada, and Finland. On Sunday, however, Boston Ballet completes a five-day engagement in London — home of the Royal Ballet, some of the world’s most knowledgeable ballet audiences, and some of the world’s most demanding ballet critics. When you tour to London, you’re saying you think you’re ready for the big time. To judge by its first performance Wednesday evening, Boston Ballet is indeed ready.
The pieces you take on tour define your company as much as how well you dance them. For the company’s first trip to London in 30 years, Nissinen decided he wasn’t going to make a story ballet one of his two programs, arguing that the city doesn’t need to see another “Swan Lake.” I actually think London might have enjoyed seeing Boston Ballet in Frederick Ashton’s “La Fille Mal Gardée” or John Cranko’s “Onegin.”
But Nissinen clearly wanted to show off the range and depth of a company that the Guardian, in a preview note, described as “these sparky Americans.” The choice of the neoclassical “Serenade” (1934-’77) and “Symphony in Three Movements” (1972) acknowledged the troupe’s commitment to America’s greatest ballet choreographer, George Balanchine. Those two works were joined on the first program by Vaslav Nijinsky’s classic “Afternoon of a Faun” (1912), a choice that paid tribute to the importance of Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, and Jorma Elo’s edgy “Plan to B” (2004). It would have been interesting to see Nijinsky’s ballet paired with Jerome Robbins’s “Afternoon of a Faun” (1953), which Sabi Varga and Whitney Jensen did so hauntingly when Boston Ballet staged it two years ago, but of course the company would want to include something by Elo, its resident choreographer, whose work is now being danced all over the world.
The four pieces fit well together. The 17 women in tulle skirts who begin “Serenade” with right arms enigmatically extended are spiritual; the 16 ponytailed bathing beauties who begin “Symphony in Three Movements” in a diagonal line are sexy. Nijinsky’s “Afternoon of a Faun,” with its stylized, frieze-like movement, couldn’t be more different from “Plan to B,” in which the perpetually revolving dancers seem to be exploding into hyperspace, and yet they share an animal energy.
These works don’t require men who can jump into the stratosphere, or women who can spin out fouettés at dizzying speed. They do reward a company that can execute crisply and put a human face on abstract movement — which is exactly what Boston Ballet has done in its performances of them over the past few years.
The company made another smart move by offering a preview performance of “Plan to B” at State Street’s Canary Wharf headquarters in London’s Docklands, on Monday, two days before opening its engagement at the Coliseum. (State Street Corp. is sponsoring the tour.) A photo of Dusty Button and Bradley Schlagheck in action turned up in Tuesday’s Evening Standard. Meanwhile, topless Boston dancers in Jirí Kylián’s “Bella Figura” greeted riders in the London Tube from giant advertisements. By Wednesday morning, the 2,350-seat Coliseum was sold out for that evening’s performance.
And when the heavy purple curtain rose, the company didn’t disappoint. Early reviews from the London press were full of praise: Writing in The Independent, Zoë Anderson declared, “Boston Ballet look fresh, fast and strong.” Mark Monahan of The Telegraph called the evening entertaining and intelligently constructed, and London Evening Standard critic Lyndsey Winship cited the company’s “go-getting energy” and added, “They really should come back more often.”
For a Boston-based critic, it was an evening when the company truly rose to the occasion. Boston Ballet’s “Serenade” moves delicately, imperceptibly into darkness, from Tchaikovsky’s opening Sonatina through the gamboling Waltz, the folkish Tema Russo, and the somber concluding Elegy. Ashley Ellis and Nelson Madrigal were a low-key Waltz couple. Ellis is a reserved dancer with a lot of lovely detail (like her backbend when she’s carried out at the end of “Serenade”); Madrigal’s boyish innocence was a good fit for her. Misa Kuranaga was butterfly-light as she whirled on and off stage in the Waltz and daisy-chained with the four demi-soloists at the beginning of the Tema Russo, and when she let her hair down in the Elegy, she looked more dangerous in this role than she did here in Boston back in May. Lia Cirio was a haunting Dark Angel, as meltingly effusive as I’ve ever seen her, and not just solid but fluid when Schlagheck’s Elegy Man turned her in arabesque on pointe. He maintained his air of mystery, even when he put Ellis’s hand on his heart.
This was a very fleet “Serenade”; the Royal Ballet’s version, I’m told, is appreciably slower. The company did not bring its own orchestra to London; instead, Boston Ballet music director Jonathan McPhee led the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. The playing was sumptuous; you would hardly think there had been only a few rehearsals. And on its own terms, McPhee’s tempo for “Serenade” worked, though it underlined the dancers’ athleticism rather than their artistry.
Altan Dugaraa was a revelation when Boston Ballet first did “Faun,” in 2009, and it was good to see him again in the title role. The king of the mountain on his Léon Bakst-designed hillock, playing his pipe and munching on grapes, he was all animal, slow and stealthy, and a little in awe of the nymphs he spied on their way to the lake to bathe, as if he had never dreamed such creatures could exist. Lorna Feijóo was, for me, the best of the dancers who played the Nymph the Faun romances in 2009, so it was good to see her again as well. She’s at home in Nijinsky’s two-dimensional stylization: Shoulders square to the audience, feet in profile, she could be moving on a Greek vase. At the Coliseum, her blank, wide-eyed countenance conveyed her own puzzlement, though John Cuff’s harsh lighting tended to wash out her features.
“Plan to B” was the first piece Elo made for Boston Ballet, but it’s chock full of his trademark moves: windmilling arms, something that looks like calf roping, 45-degree revoltades. Set to music by Baroque composer Heinrich Biber, it can seem frenetic with its incessant gyrating, and yet both the music and the dancers find an unearthly peace by spewing forth excess energy. A sensuous Jensen, in the role Elo devised for former Boston Ballet principal Sarah Lamb (now with the Royal Ballet), ignited the piece. Jeffrey Cirio and John Lam did well with the revoltades; Bo Busby looked stellar spinning while holding one foot; Lia Cirio and Varga nailed Elo’s acrobatics. What pulled it together was the sense of community these six dancers created. They all could have been jiving in their own worlds; instead, they made each expression a form of communication.
Stravinsky’s “Symphony in Three Movements” begins with an invocation to the god of war, and Boston Ballet executes Balanchine’s choreography as if a Busby Berkeley extravaganza were America’s secret weapon to defeat Hitler. The piece is all exuberant jitterbugging and jiving, ponytails and ponystepping and contagious piqué turns. In the first movement, Kuranaga and Jeffrey Cirio were like kids trying to see who could jump higher; then Kathleen Breen Combes came on as the all-American showgirl demonstrating how to shimmy 13 different ways at the same time, and Schlagheck and Rie Ichikawa turned up as fresh-faced teenagers.
In the second movement, Balanchine’s gloss on the second movement of his own “Rubies,” Paulo Arrais and Breen Combes were a serene, playful Adam and Eve. In the con moto finale, all 32 dancers formed and re-formed on stage to create a complex code (which included dressing the three principal women in different shades of pink) that they seemed to be challenging the Nazis to break. The final tableau of “Symphony in Three Movements” presents the women standing or kneeling in semaphore poses, the men crouched in front of them, lunging, as if they were in a recruitment poster proclaiming “George Balanchine wants YOU!” At the Coliseum, the Boston Ballet men seemed to be daring the audience to find fault with their performance. The audience responded with whoops, whistles, and loud applause.