“Pricked,” the title of Boston Ballet’s new production, is obviously meant to pique your curiosity. Does it refer to the thorns and roses in Petr Zuska’s “D.M.J. 1953-1977” (2004)? Or to the succulents in Alexander Ekman’s “Cacti” (2010)? More to the point, is this program, which includes Harald Lander’s “Études,” Eurotrash or Eurotreasure? The opening-night performance Thursday at the Opera House was prickly in spots, but never dull.
Your curiosity will certainly be piqued by Zuska’s title. The “D.M.J.” stands for his fellow Czech composers Antonín Dvorák, Bohuslav Martinu, and Leos Janácek, whose music comprises the score. The “1953-1977” represents the dates on a gravestone the choreographer stumbled upon in Montreal, a woman dead at age 24. Perhaps that’s why the lead couple — Lasha Khozashvili and Lia Cirio opening night — seem to represent Death and the Maiden.
Khozashvili started it off by placing a long-stemmed red rose on a square black box. Then Cirio came on, and he accosted her. Their increasingly ominous duet, to the serene Largo from Dvorák’s “New World” Symphony and the more agitated Largo from Martinu’s Third Symphony, played out against a backdrop of six couples atop long black boxes that lay flat like coffins or were stood up like gravestones.
The short final section, set to Janácek’s piano solo “The Tawny Owl Has Not Flown Away” (the owl is a bad omen in Czech folklore), found the boxes forming a giant sofa (or a tomb) and Cirio and Khozashvili, stripped to their underclothes, ensconced there before Khozashvili left and Cirio, clutching a rose, curled up. “D.M.J. 1953-1977” is an enigmatic, arresting work, particularly in its ensemble, that draws to a perhaps too literal close. Jonathan McPhee and the Boston Ballet Orchestra were heart stopping in the Dvorák.
“Death and the Maiden,” in the form of the Schubert string quartet, also hovered over Swedish choreographer Ekman’s piece, which like Zuska’s was receiving its American premiere. Each of the 16 dancers performs with a cactus, so the title is no mystery, but you might wonder what the cacti have to do with anything and also why everyone starts out on what look like huge blank Scrabble tiles while a string quartet (made up of conservatory students and subway buskers) wanders about on stage. The dancers kneel, slap the tiles, slap their bodies, play at martial arts, vocalize, strike poses as if to spell out words, air-conduct the orchestra, and run in place — not always in the same direction. Eventually, the tiles are turned into a sculpture, a long white mat is rolled out, and two dancers — Whitney Jensen and Jeffrey Cirio on opening night, both deadpan funny — engage in a rehearsal while a voiceover gives us their thoughts: “I always forget this part,” “It’s not always about you,” “Is there much left?”
It’s all a spoof of postmodern dance, complete with preposterously pompous voiceover essays (“As ants construct their intricate hills, so have these artists created their symbolic sculpture”), a cat (stuffed) falling from the rafters, and the cacti, which at one point some of the dancers wear on their heads. Like “D.M.J. 1953-1977,” “Cacti” tends to wear out its concept, but you hardly notice as long as the dancers are doing amazing things on those Scrabble tiles
to the tarantella finale of Schubert’s quartet.
The evening began with Lander’s 1948 ballet homage, which opens with ladies, their lower legs spotlit, executing tendus, pliés, and developpés at the barre and proceeds, in 45 minutes, to offer a history of the dance. Seo Hye Han, with a deep plié, offered the audience a graceful greeting. But the piece belonged to its ballerina, Misa Kuranaga, who gave a dazzling display of power and poetry. Changing from a classical tutu to a romantic one and back, executing tight bourrées and speedy chaînés and big coupé-jeté turns, she was precise without ever looking the least bit academic. Her romantic cavalier, John Lam, was gallant and attentive. As the two classical men, Jeffrey Cirio and Isaac Akiba were not as explosive, but Cirio was sharp in tours à la seconde in both directions, and Akiba was light and airy in the Bournonville section.
“Études” is a demanding exhausting work, for the corps as much as for the soloists, with pyrotechnical demands that expose even small flaws in technique and ensemble. But the company has improved since it last performed the piece in 2012. If artistic director Mikko Nissinen wanted to make the point that Boston Ballet can do just about anything, he succeeded.