If anyone doubts Boston Ballet’s serious commitment to contemporary work, look no further than the current “Close to Chuck” program, which opened Thursday night at the Boston Opera House. It sports a newly commissioned world premiere by José Martinez, a work by resident choreographer Jorma Elo newly retooled for six of the company’s stellar dancers, and a reprise of Jirí Kylián’s provocative “Bella Figura,” giving audiences a welcome opportunity for yet another look at a major work by one of the ballet world’s undisputed masters. A challenging, visually striking program, it’s not for sissies.
Artist Chuck Close is all over Elo’s “C. to C. (Close to Chuck) Reborn.” Best known for his massive portraits, the National Medal of Arts winner is represented in the giant bespectacled eyes of the backdrop, and his face appears and disappears as the dancers flash the undersides of their long skirts. The music is Philip Glass’s “A Musical Portrait of Chuck Close” (given a commanding live onstage performance by Bruce Levingston), and Elo was inspired not just by Close’s creativity, but by his resilience and determination — Close continues to paint with a special brush-holding device though partially paralyzed since 1988.
However, it’s tricky to discern Close’s spirit in the actual movement. Perhaps some of the angular, semaphoric gestures reflect Close’s fondness for painting with grids. But mostly, the ballet is trademark Elo, with slicing kicks, brilliant turns, lifts with limbs akimbo, and quick shifts of weight and direction. While it doesn’t completely add up, it’s riveting to watch. And from the company’s superb performance, you’d think it was created specifically for them, not American Ballet Theatre in 2007. But in fact, Elo significantly tweaked the work in the process of restaging (thus the title’s “Reborn”) and the dancers (Kathleen Breen Combes, Lia Cirio, Whitney Jensen, Jeffrey Cirio, John Lam, and Sabi Varga) give his mercurial choreography absolute commitment and flair.
Boston Ballet is the first North American company to commission a piece by Martinez, a former star of the Paris Opera Ballet and currently director of National Dance Company in Spain, so the world premiere of “Resonance” is a major event. However, what is most memorable about this ballet for 19 dancers is the set’s series of movable panels by designer Jean-Marc Puissant. They afford a lovely interplay of dancers and shadows, but they also fracture the stage into different planes, making Martinez’s overly busy ensemble choreography look messy in spots. Liszt’s roiling “Transcendental Études” (given commanding performances by Freda Locker and Alex Foaksman) don’t give the dancers much to hold on to, and the piece looked unsettled on opening night.
Solos and duets, however, were outstanding, Cirio and Lasha Khozashvili stood out in an emotionally charged yet classically restrained duet of romantic sweep.
The company looked spectacular in Kylián’s familiar “Bella Figura,” by far the strongest work on the program. Even with the visual pop of nude manikins, flaming cauldrons, revealing costumes, and multiple curtains that both obscure and reveal, this brilliant work for nine dancers is all about the expressive potential of the body — not just its sculptural beauty, but its humor, devastating vulnerability, and extraordinary strength.
Since 2011, Boston Ballet has performed it frequently at home and abroad, but it goes into the repertory archives after this series. Feast your eyes while you can.
Correction: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized Boston Ballet’s 2011 performance of “Bella Figura.”