Theater & art

The Year in Arts

Big exits, entrances on Boston ballet scene

Yury Yanowsky and Kathleen Breen Combes in Boston Ballet’s “Lady of the Camellias.”
Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe
Yury Yanowsky and Kathleen Breen Combes in Boston Ballet’s “Lady of the Camellias.”

Dance always seems to be in a state of transition. Dancers come and go, artistic directors move on, companies rise and fall, performance spaces appear and disappear. Still, 2015 was a particularly tumultuous year in Boston.

And nowhere more so than at Boston Ballet. In March, at age 42, principal dancer Yury Yanowsky gave his final performance for the company, in Val Caniparoli’s “Lady of the Camellias,” as Armand opposite the Marguerite of Kathleen Breen Combes, who is his wife. Yanowsky had joined the company in 1993 and had been a principal since 1999. He and Breen Combes weren’t paired often, but they were mesmerizing in “Lady of the Camellias.” Now Yanowsky is looking ahead to a career as a full-time choreographer; already he’s won the Erik Bruhn Choreographic Prize, and Boston Ballet has commissioned a piece from him for its “Mirrors” program next May. He hasn’t totally given up dancing, either; earlier this month, he was the Cavalier in Leggz Ltd. Dance’s “Nutcracker” on Long Island.

Two more company principals, Jeffrey Cirio and Whitney Jensen, departed at the end of the 2014-15 season. Cirio, following in the footsteps of former Boston Ballet principal James Whiteside, moved to New York’s American Ballet Theatre, where he is a soloist. He gave his farewell performance in May in Balanchine’s “Theme and Variations,” on a program that also featured a work he choreographed, “fremd,” commissioned by the company. This summer he danced at Jacob’s Pillow with Daniel Ulbricht’s “Stars of American Ballet”; he also developed his own troupe, the Cirio Collective, for a performance on Martha’s Vineyard. And he’s returning to dance in some final performances of Boston Ballet’s “Nutcracker.” Jensen, who left to guest and freelance elsewhere, was part of that Cirio Collective performance, and she did Marzipan in the Leggz Ltd. “Nutcracker.”

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In September, Boston Ballet also announced that its music director, Jonathan McPhee, will become the company’s music director emeritus at the end of the 2015-16 season. McPhee has been with Boston Ballet since 1988. McPhee, who has worked with Martha Graham, Leonard Bernstein, and George Balanchine, has been one of the finest conductors in Boston over the past 27 years, and the high musical standard he set elevated the company’s dancing. As to why he is leaving, artistic director Mikko Nissinen had no comment. But Boston Ballet could have a very difficult time replacing him.

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Meanwhile in the Berkshires, Jacob’s Pillow announced that executive and artistic director Ella Baff was leaving to become senior program officer for arts and cultural heritage at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Baff had been at the Pillow for 17 years. Under her leadership, Jacob’s Pillow was named a National Historic Landmark by the federal government, and in 2011 it received a National Medal of Arts from President Obama. The Pillow’s board of directors is planning to announce a new director early next year.

And another familiar face is moving on: Boston native Kirven Douthit-Boyd, who got his start with the Boston Arts Academy before moving on to Boston Youth Moves and the Boston Conservatory. For the past 11 years, Douthit-Boyd has danced with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, making regular visits to Boston, but now he and his husband, fellow Ailey dancer Antonio Douthit-Boyd, are retiring to become co-artistic directors of dance at the Center of Creative Arts in Antonio’s home town of St. Louis.

But 2015 wasn’t all departures in dance. José Mateo’s “Nutcracker” had been an annual event at the Cutler Majestic Theatre in the 1990s, before Mateo moved the production to the 250-seat Sanctuary Theatre in his company’s Cambridge home base. This year, Mateo reached an agreement with Emerson College, which owns the 1,200-seat Majestic, to bring his “Nutcracker” back for the next five years. He’s also expanded the production’s run at the Strand Theatre in Dorchester. It was good to see this “Nutcracker” back on the big stage.

And the Dance Complex just unveiled its renovated Studio 7 in Cambridge’s Central Square. The street-level space, which the Complex had formerly rented out, will be used for dance classes, workshops, performances, and outside events, and the big picture window — executive director Peter DiMuro says it’s about 17 feet wide and 13 feet high — will allow passers-by on Massachusetts Avenue to have a look at what’s going on. Inside there’s 1,800 square feet of supported floor — space that will get its first real workout during the Dance Complex’s Winter Wonder Dance Festival, which runs Dec. 28-31.

Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at jeffreymgantz@gmail.com.