On Jan. 25, 1965, Boston Ballet presented the opening program of its first subscription season. George Balanchine’s “Apollo” and “Scotch Symphony” were on the bill, and Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein were in the audience. Balanchine was in fact a staunch supporter of Boston Ballet in its early years under E. Virginia Williams, donating a number of his creations to the fledgling company. So it was fitting that the Ballet should close out its 50th-anniversary season in June — after a tour to the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C — by traveling to the David H. Koch Theater, “the house that Balanchine built,” in Lincoln Center, and performing, among other works, Mr. B’s “Symphony in Three Movements.”
Boston Ballet’s 50-year journey was the big dance news in Boston this year. And anniversary events weren’t the only attractions. In May, as part of its regular 2013-14 season, the company performed Balanchine’s “Jewels,” arguably the finest ballet of the 20th century, and last month, it offered artistic director Mikko Nissinen’s version of “Swan Lake,” arguably the finest ballet of the 19th century. “Swan Lake” ran for three weekends — the first time a Boston Ballet production other than “The Nutcracker” has done so since the mid 1990s — and was a box-office hit, selling out 10 of the 16 performances and drawing a total attendance of 32,000.
But even in a town that has demonstrated its affection for the classic ballets, there are only so many available. And dance companies everywhere face the challenge of turning movement into meaning (not to mention money) in the future.
For the Trey McIntyre Project, there is no future; the company announced that it would fold following its 2014 performances at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival. Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, Pilobolus, Ronald K. Brown, and Mark Morris Dance Group all know what they want to do, and they did it well in 2014, either in town or at the Pillow. Morris’s “Acis and Galatea” wasn’t any kind of advance on his 1988 hit “L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il,” but it’s hard to complain about artistry at this level.
Elsewhere in Boston, we got dance with many words from Bill T. Jones, who, in “Story/Time” related 70 one-minute tales while around him his company performed excerpts from his work. We got dance with no words from Beijing’s TAO Dance Theater, the titles of whose “4” and “5” refer to the number of performers in each piece. Pilobolus teamed up with Penn & Teller to create “[esc],” in which dancers had to extricate themselves from “perilous” situations. Urbanity Dance collaborated with string ensemble A Far Cry on the Jordan Hall stage, the dancers weaving in and out among the musicians. Tania Pérez-Salas flooded the Shubert Theatre stage with 500 gallons of water. Celebrity Series of Boston closed out its own 75th-anniversary year with a free public event in which 110 Bostonians ages 9 to 73 danced “Le Grand Continental” in Copley Square Park.
One welcome element in 2014 was humor. At Jacob’s Pillow, Mark Morris Dance Group’s program included the Benny Hill-naughty “A Wooden Tree,” Doug Elkins’s “Hapless Bizarre” incorporated a clown, Dance Heginbotham riffed on “Le sacre du printemps” in “Chalk and Soot,” and McIntyre’s new “The Vinegar Works: Four Dances of Moral Instruction” drew on Edward Gorey.
Even Boston Ballet, not noted for its comedy, got into the act. As a pair of over-the-top stepsisters in Ashton’s “Cinderella” in March, Yury Yanowsky and Boyko Dossev stole the show, which is not easy to do when Misa Kuranaga is dancing the title role. Yanowsky followed that up with a subversive turn as Drosselmeier in “The Nutcracker,” prancing around like an overgrown kid and encouraging the little boys to break up the girls’ doll lullaby. And in Alexander Ekman’s “Cacti,” a spoof of postmodern dance (and critics) presented as part of the “Pricked” program in May, the 16 dancers, standing or kneeling on what resembled giant Scrabble tiles, slapped those tiles, slapped their bodies, played at martial arts, vocalized, struck poses as if to spell out words, air-conducted the orchestra, and ran in place — not always in the same direction.
The two images that stayed with me from 2014 were both Boston Ballet ladies in red. The banner for the company’s Lincoln Center appearance, stretching 40 feet high on an outside wall of the Koch Theater, showed corps dancer Sarah Wroth in a pose from Jirí Kylián’s “Bella Figura,” wearing a puffy red skirt and nothing else, one arm strategically positioned over her chest. Wroth will be remembered for more than this banner; she’s a fine dancer, especially in character roles. But that choice of image is a statement of intent from Nissinen.
The other lady in red was Boston Ballet 2 member Skyla Schreter. The company’s annual “Next Generation” evening, which highlights the students of the Boston Ballet School, included a performance of “Scotch Symphony” as a tribute to Balanchine’s support, and Schreter, just 18 years old, was amazingly poised and confident as the Highland Girl. If this is the future of dance, then dance is in good shape.