Theater & art

Boston Ballet aims to look sharp with US premiere of ‘Cacti’

Corps de ballet dancer Paul Craig (top) calls “Cacti” “a test of our versatility” that’s “super fun to rehearse.”
Barry Chin/Globe Staff
Corps de ballet dancer Paul Craig (right) calls “Cacti” “a test of our versatility” that’s “super fun to rehearse.”

Ballet is often considered high art. So it might have been surprising to see nearly two dozen of Boston Ballet’s elite dancers getting down — literally.

In a spacious studio at the company’s South End headquarters one recent afternoon, the dancers crouched, squatted, and slithered. To the strains of Schubert’s elegant “Death and the Maiden,” they hopped like frogs and played a rhythmically elaborate game of peekaboo behind 16 square platforms of varying depths. They also made quite the din, using the platforms as pedestals and drums, stomping, pounding, kicking, slapping. They seemed to be having a blast.

It was all preparation for the company’s upcoming program “Pricked,” which runs May 8-18 at the Boston Opera House. The title plays off Alexander Ekman’s “Cacti,” which the company was enthusiastically rehearsing (yes, there will be actual cacti strewn about the stage). The program also includes Harald Lander’s “Études,” an homage to classical ballet, and the American premiere of “D.M.J. 1953-1977,” a lyrical, sometimes thorny work by the Czech choreographer Petr Zuska, who is artistic director of The National Theatre in Prague. Set to music by the Czech composers Dvorák, Martinu, and Janácek, “it’s a piercing work that really gets under your skin,” says Boston Ballet artistic director Mikko Nissinen, in another playful nod to the program’s title.

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Nissinen was especially eager to get a work by Ekman, resident choreographer with the Nederlands Dans Theater, and this presentation of “Cacti” marks the work’s American premiere. The charismatic 26-year-old choreographer is well known in Europe but less so in the United States.

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“No one’s heard of him in America, and I wanted to give him a big push,” says Nissinen. “He looks at choreography in a totally different way. It’s very refreshing. He’s a new voice, he’s damn sharp and moving fast, entering the field with a big bang.”

A former dancer with the Royal Swedish Ballet, Ekman has created a stir since he began choreographing eight years ago while a dancer with Nederlands Dans Theater 2. His works have been performed by companies across Europe, as well as in Australia and in the United States. On April 26, he premiered his first full-length narrative ballet, an edgy reinterpretation of the original pre-Petipa “Swan Lake” for the Norwegian National Ballet, complete with a water-filled lake and what appear to be dozens of rubber ducks.

“Cacti” is Ekman’s most performed work, an internationally acclaimed hit. Ekman says the dance came to life at the end of a four-year period in which he had serious doubts about the role of the art critic in society, and he calls the satirical “Cacti” his last comment on the phenomenon of allowing the opinion of one to shape the perception of many. He hopes it reminds audiences that sometimes it’s best not to take modern art too seriously.

Nissinen calls “Cacti” Ekman’s “absolute masterpiece,” having come under its spell in 2010 after seeing its world premiere by Nederlands Dans Theater 2. “It blew me away,” he remembers. “It’s lightning fast, very architectural and entertaining. It takes you on such a journey, like a whirlwind. It’s high-caliber art but highly accessible.”

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“I like to surprise people,” Ekman said in a recent e-mail exchange from Norway. “If something surprises people it takes them out of their daily lives and problems, and hopefully it inspires them to look at things differently. That inspires me and gives purpose to what I do.”

The sonic soundscape for the work is as intriguing as the movement. “I think this has more moving parts than anything we’ve ever done,” says Boston Ballet music director Jonathan McPhee. In addition to the orchestral score (a collage of Beethoven, Haydn, and Schubert), a live string quartet plays onstage, sometimes improvising as they walk among the dancers. Former Berklee College of Music students Rhett Price and Josh Knowles (also known as the “Subway Violinists” from their YouTube hit playing Taylor Swift’s “I Knew You Were Trouble” at a Red Line subway stop) will do the honors along with violist Anna Stromer and cellist Eric Law.

The dancers, performing in bare feet, factor in aurally as well. “The dancers use their voice, their breath, and acoustically use the environment around them and their own bodies to be as much a part of the sounds of the piece as the four onstage musicians and the orchestras,” says company ballet master Anthony Randazzo, who has been helping stager Nina Botkay prepare the piece for performance. Ekman himself comes to Boston for the final week of rehearsing.

Barry Chin/Globe Staff
Ballet master Anthony Randazzo (above) says, “Though it’s a light piece, ironic and witty, it’s physically demanding.”

Voice-over narration clues audiences in on some of the ballet’s context. There’s absurdist commentary on some of the affectations and excesses of contemporary dance, for example, with such lines as “the genderless, anonymous, parallel bodies on the horizontal plain represent the absolute principles of heaven, man and earth.” Ekman refers to the “ivory pedestals” symbolizing “a duality of freedom and imprisonment.”

That duality is hilariously evident as the dancers hoist upright, drag, and stomp atop the platforms, which range in weight from 50 to 80 pounds — no mean feat for some of the company’s petite ballerinas. “Some of the work that’s really low to the ground is especially challenging,” Randazzo says. “Ballet is such an elevated form. Dancers spend little time on the floor. This is very earthy, and that uses different muscle groups. I’m sure they’re pretty sore right about now. Though it’s a light piece, ironic and witty, it’s physically demanding.”

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According to corps de ballet dancer Paul Craig, though, it’s as rewarding as it is challenging. “It’s so awesome,” he said with palpable enthusiasm post-rehearsal. “It’s high energy and contemporary, but it also has other types of dance — hip-hop, African, ballet, modern. It’s almost tribal and explosive, letting go of everything but still being in control. Ballet dancers are typically more reserved, in position. This is throwing the entire body weight into a movement but balancing on top of a box. It’s really a test of our versatility, but it’s super fun to rehearse.”

Randazzo thinks the combination of cutting-edge concept, technical virtuosity, and humor make “Cacti” a great addition to Boston Ballet’s repertoire. “It pushes boundaries for dancers and audiences to understand that this is what Boston Ballet is about, a diverse company that really explores things that are new and different.”

Nissinen adds, “Yes, we do ballet, but really what we do is beautiful dance with beautiful music. Who cares what’s the stylistic point of view? It’s all brotherhood of dance. There are no more boundaries. It’s about doing dance really well.”

Karen Campbell can be reached at karencampbell4@rcn.com.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the college that Price and Knowles attended.