Boston Ballet’s ballerinas are impressively adept at balancing on their toes, twirling, and gliding. But Hans van Manen’s “Black Cake,” which receives its company debut in the upcoming “Shades of Sound” program March 19-29, asks them to do something quite different: dance in slim 3-inch heels. And because “Black Cake” plays off variations of ballroom dance, the 15 ballerinas cast during the work’s run are also tackling elements of a new dance form, most for the first time.
Choreographed in 1989 for the 30th anniversary of the Nederlands Dans Theater, “Black Cake” is set at a society party, and the five-movement romp suggests the tipsy flirtations and shifting romantic encounters of six couples. Three pas de deux movements are framed by full ensemble sections, the last one including a waiter who serves the dancers champagne, bringing the intoxicated revelry to a head.
As in ballroom dance, the ballet sets most of the duet choreography face to face, with a carefully calibrated distance between partners, the women’s elbows always up just so, normally turned out feet resolutely parallel. But it’s those high heel shoes that, as Boston Ballet corps member Caralin Curcio says, “put a whole new spin on it. They’re skinny ballroom heels, not very supportive, and we’re jumping and there’s a lot of fast movement. We can’t push off in lifts like we normally would cause we’re already on the balls of our feet, and that’s a lot more work for the men. And landing is scary. You can’t depend on that heel.”
Spending an entire piece basically on demi-pointe also puts extra pressure on the balls of the feet. “The calves get really cramped,” admits Curcio. “But it’s so much fun, very playful. You keep constant eye contact with your partner so you develop a really fun relationship.” She dances with Patrick Yocum.
Because of the loose resemblance to social dancing, “Black Cake” may initially appear simple. But Boston Ballet artistic director Mikko Nissinen says that’s deceptive. “It’s actually very difficult,” he explains. “Not too many of our dancers are familiar with this kind of repertoire. It’s entertaining, but very sophisticated. It’s mostly about the chemistry and electricity between a man and a woman, almost a little social commentary.”
Misa Kuranaga, who dances the work’s first pas de deux with Eris Nezha, says it’s all about the partnering. “At first he tries to demand something from her and she doesn’t give in. It’s about creating something together, like partnerships in everyday life.” Nezha says the push/pull duet is like a metaphor for the relationship between the two dance forms: ballet and ballroom.
But it’s probably the humor most viewers will remember, and that’s also posed a challenge for the dancers. “To have fun onstage and be silly is easy,” Kuranaga says, “but we have to make sure we’re not overdoing it.”
Nezha adds, “My job as a dancer is to control my body. It’s hard to get the kind of freedom in my body to be very awkward.”
The ballet also requires that the dancers talk — really talk. The whole group enters for the finale while having ad hoc conversations that are meant to soar over the footlights. “That’s something we never do,” says Curcio. “It’s a little goofy.”
Manen’s choreography, which spans more than 120 ballets, has been staged by companies around the world, and Nissinen has been an admirer for decades, since Manen was a resident choreographer for the Dutch National Ballet during Nissinen’s time there as a dancer. “He has a fascinating, distinct choreographic voice — restrained, very clear, and he likes to provoke,” Nissinen says. “I love so many of his works, and I’m happy to finally have one in Boston Ballet’s repertoire.”
He chose the humorous “Black Cake” to complement the program’s two other, more serious works. “Shades of Sound” includes the company premiere of Balanchine’s kaleidoscopic “Episodes” (1959) and the return of Wayne McGregor’s sleek, ultramodern tour de force “Chroma” (2006). One might consider Manen’s comic “Black Cake,” set to musical gems by Tchaikovsky, Janácek, Stravinsky, Mascagni, and Massenet, as the program’s frothy dessert.
“When I put a triple deal together, there has to be a beautiful arc,” Nissinen explains. “Like a responsible parent, I don’t give kids 18 pounds of sugar. I wanted the program to be little bit austere, celebrating ‘Chroma’ and ‘Episodes’ next to each other, and this is the perfect closing. It’s a very good piece of choreography, and everybody can relax, kick back, and be taken for a ride. It’s fun. The dancers are eating it up. I think the audiences will too.”Karen Campbell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.