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Meeting of artistic minds draws Boston Ballet close to Chuck

Choreographer Jorma Elo works with Boston Ballet dancers in rehearsal for “C. to C. (Close to Chuck),” his dance set to music by Philip Glass and an homage to artist Chuck Close. The dancers’ skirts were designer Ralph Rucci’s idea of connecting the costumes to the backdrop, self-portraits by Close.

Pat Greenhouse/Globe staff

Choreographer Jorma Elo worked with Boston Ballet dancers in rehearsal for “C. to C. (Close to Chuck),” his dance set to music by Philip Glass and an homage to artist Chuck Close.

‘Something old, something new, and something sort of new” could describe Boston Ballet’s first repertory program of 2014. The “old,” Jirí Kylián’s “Bella Figura,” dates from 1995, so it’s quite recent, but the Ballet offered it in 2011 and again in 2012, so even the sections in which the dancers appear topless are no longer a novelty. The “new,” José Martínez’s “Resonance,” is so new that as recently as a couple of weeks ago this commission from the artistic director of Spain’s Compañía Nacional de Danza wasn’t finished and didn’t have a name. It’s the “sort of new” item, however, that might be the most intriguing one on the bill, Jorma Elo’s “C. to C. (Close to Chuck).” American Ballet Theatre premiered this work in 2007, but given Elo’s penchant for revising his work, it will undoubtedly look new when it appears on the Boston Opera House stage Thursday.

The creation of “C. to C.” actually involved a quartet of individuals: Elo, painter and photographer Chuck Close, composer Philip Glass, and pianist Bruce Levingston. Its genesis goes back to Paris in 1964, when Glass and Close first met. They crossed paths again in New York in 1967, and in 1968 Close took his iconic photograph of Glass. Both men went on to become major American artists; in 1988, Close suffered a spinal aneurysm that left him in a wheelchair, but he continues to work.

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It was Levingston who had the idea that, since Close had depicted Glass in his art, Glass should depict Close in his music. “They both work with small elements within a big architecture,” Levingston says. “But they’ve also both evolved away from that into more emotional arenas. So there’s the outward similarity of structuring in what seem to be small cells, but also the way they’ve both grown and become different people, and different artists, from what they first started out to be.”

Levingston met both men for the first time in 2004, at the American Academy of Arts and Letters in New York. “I met them at the same moment,” he recalls. “It was only a month earlier that I’d seen the portrait Chuck had done of Philip. And at the moment I met Philip, I introduced the idea to him and asked if he might be interested in composing a musical portrait of Chuck. Philip said, ‘I’ll compose it if you play it.’ ”

That piece, “A Musical Portrait of Chuck Close,” became the core of the music for “C. to C.” And it has its own story. Levingston remembers receiving the score electronically from Glass, in September 2004, and calling him to talk about it. They soon gathered that they weren’t talking about the same thing. “We realized that he had sent the ‘wrong’ piece of music,” says Levingston. “He’d actually been composing two pieces at the same time and trying to decide which best captured Chuck.”

Glass then sent the “right” music; Levingston looked at the two pieces and played them back to back. “And I realized,” he says, “that in fact that was the portrait. He had captured two different parts of Chuck’s life. One piece is a youthful, exuberant, wild piece, and the other is more bittersweet but has a kind of transcendence about it. That is the Chuck Close to me that has appeared since his spinal aneurysm. After he reemerged and began to be able to paint again, I think the painting became even deeper, more colorful. And I think Phil captured inside this piece of music the core strength and indomitable will to live and create that is Chuck Close.”

The next step in the evolution of “C. to C.” came when Levingston played “A Musical Portrait of Chuck Close” for an American Ballet Theatre board member and she immediately expressed the thought that it should be danced. Levingston and Glass conferred and decided to flesh out the 12-minute Close portrait with three Glass Études, Nos. 2, 9, and 10. And then, with the support of American Ballet Theatre director Kevin McKenzie, they sent the music to Elo because, Levingston says, “we wanted Jorma and loved his work.”

Pat Greenhouse/Globe staff

The dancers’ skirts were designer Ralph Rucci’s idea of connecting the costumes to the backdrop, self-portraits by Close.

Levingston recalls having seen Elo’s “Slice to Sharp” at New York City Ballet in spring 2006. “I was just blown away by Jorma’s work,” he says. “It was physically extraordinary and virtuosic, but also there’s a hidden depth under everything he does. It reminds me very much of both Philip’s work and Chuck’s. There’s a glittering surface that’s dazzling, but also, the more you look and the more you listen, the more you see is underneath. He has so much contrapuntal work going on in his choreography, and I think that complexity can be difficult at first for people. But once you see the entire tapestry, I believe his choreography is just incredibly deep and musical.”

Elo was already well-acquainted with Glass’s music, having used it in “Offcore,” for the Finnish National Ballet, and “Double Evil,” for San Francisco Ballet, and he fell in love with the new piece. He didn’t know anything about Close, but that was quickly remedied when the two of them got together. “It was great,” he says. “I met him several times and we spoke about the set design. We had quite long conversations and crazy ideas about what to do.” In the end, they came up with two different self-portraits, one in black and white and one in vivid reddish colors.

Then there was designer Ralph Rucci’s idea of connecting the costumes to the backdrop by replicating part of the colored self-portrait on the inside of the skirt that the dancers — male and female — wear. Elo didn’t want to do anything as literal as bringing in a wheelchair. The skirts, he says, “describe something that is limited in the dancers’ movement. So they become a symbol of physicality lost or restrained, or something dark coming into a young person’s life.”

This is the first time that “C. to C.” will have been danced since its American Ballet Theatre premiere, and as much as one third of the choreography will be new. In 2007, Elo says, “the costumes were ready at the last moment, and it was too late to incorporate them. Now I’m trying to involve them a little bit more, what we do with the skirts and with the print on them.”

The last piece of the puzzle is provided by Levingston, who’ll be playing the piano score live, as he did in 2007. “Being on stage with the dancers is extraordinary,” he says. “You feel as if you yourself were dancing as they swirl near you.” He’s not looking just at the score, either; he has a lot of it memorized, and in any case, he says, “one must actually watch the dancers in order to time certain things. It keeps me on my toes, so to speak.”

Summing up the dance and the music, he says, “I just feel that the work is, apart from the specific friendship, about human resilience, in the sense that one can overcome so much and still find the beauty and meaning in life. In the last movement, there’s such an explosion of joy, that every time I see it, I feel in myself a sense of reaffirmation of life.”

Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at jeffreymgantz@gmail.com.
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