Boston Ballet’s 2015-16 season will be highlighted by the return of John Cranko’s “Onegin” and by the company’s first performance of John Neumeier’s “Mahler’s Third Symphony.” The spring will bring a pair of repertory programs featuring world premieres by Karole Armitage and Boston Ballet principal guest artist Yury Yanowsky (who will be retiring after the current run of Val Caniparoli’s “Lady of the Camellias”), plus work by George Balanchine, William Forsythe, Leonid Yakobson, Léonide Massine, José Martinez, and Norbert Vesak. And artistic director Mikko Nissinen’s new “Swan Lake,” which broke box-office records when it debuted last year, will also return.
Nissinen says he was looking “to bring new choreographers into the Boston market, like John Neumeier.” He’s happy to have “Onegin” back; its return had been postponed by the search for a suitable set. And he says “we turned so many people away from ‘Swan Lake’ last season that there was a big push to do it again.”
The season opens Oct. 22-Nov. 1 with “Mahler’s Third Symphony,” which Boston Ballet will be the first North American company to perform, and just the fourth worldwide. Mahler’s Symphony No. 3, which premiered in 1902, is a monumental work in six movements, with titles like “What the Flowers in the Meadow Tell Me” and “What Love Tells Me.” The performing forces include an alto soloist and a children’s choir singing texts from Friedrich Nietzsche and from the German folk collection “Des Knaben Wunderhorn.” A typical performance lasts about 100 minutes.
Neumeier, who has been the director of Hamburg Ballet since 1973, debuted this work in Hamburg in 1975. Nissinen recalls that he first saw it in Finland in the late ’70s. “A couple years ago,” he says, “John revived it for his company and for Paris Opera Ballet, after many years of not doing the ballet at all. And when we were having conversations about the right work to do here in Boston, he suggested the Mahler Third, and I said, ‘All right, we’re done, I love it.’ It opens with this huge movement for the men, and it’s a huge poetic journey with fantastic choreography to great, great music.”
Following that will be “The Nutcracker” (Nov. 27-Dec. 31), with sets and costumes by Robert Perdziola for the production that debuted in 2012. Once again the run will close on First Night. Nissinen says, “The orchestra will play half an hour before the curtain, Viennese-inspired music, and then the show will be a special New Year’s edition.”
The spring season will begin with “Onegin” (Feb. 25-March 6), which the company previously did, to great acclaim, in 1994, 1997, and 2002. Cranko’s ballet, which his Stuttgart Ballet premiered in 1965, is an adaptation of Alexander Pushkin’s verse novel “Eugene Onegin,” with a score that Kurt-Heinze Stolze cobbled together from various Tchaikovsky bits and pieces.
Nissinen had been looking for a production that would fit into the Opera House (the previous stagings were on the larger Wang Theatre stage) and would meet his standards. He was excited about one that’s being done in Canada, but it turned out to have a moving wall that wouldn’t work on the Opera House stage. Then he found what he wanted from the Dutch National Ballet, in Amsterdam. “It’s an absolutely beautiful production,” he says.
The first of the two repertory programs, titled “Kaleidoscope,” will run March 17-26 and will offer Balanchine’s “Kammermusik No. 2,” Forsythe’s “The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude,” Yakobson’s “Pas de Quatre,” and Massine’s “Gaîté Parisienne.” Forsythe’s piece will be encored from this season’s “Thrill of Contact” program (May 14-24), but the Balanchine and Yakobson works are new to the company, and “Gaîté Parisienne” has not been presented here since 1982.
Nissinen calls this “a classic mixed bill that has a little bit for everyone. We open with a Balanchine work that is rarely seen, to music by Hindemith. It has a huge cast of men, which is a little bit unusual for a Balanchine work.”
The real rarity here, however, is the work by Yakobson. He was born in St. Petersburg in 1904, the same year as Balanchine, and Nissinen says, “he had a unique choreographic voice,” one that, along with his Jewish identity, challenged Soviet authority and caused his work to be suppressed for a time. Nissinen adds, “He really opened the eyes of dancers in Russia; they started thinking differently because of him. Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov worked with him. In 1969, he created a solo called ‘Vestris’ for Baryshnikov for the Moscow International Ballet Competition to showcase Misha’s acting skills and great classical technique.”
“Pas de Quatre” is set to music from Bellini’s “Norma.” “Kaleidoscope” will close with “Gaîté Parisienne,” with music by Offenbach that’ll include the famous can-can from “Orpheus in the Underworld.”
Nissinen’s “Swan Lake,” which drew a total audience of 30,000 on its first run, returns April 29 - May 26. The season will close, May 6-28, with another quartet of works, under the title “Mirrors”: Martínez’s “Resonance,” Vesak’s pas de deux “Belong,” and the premieres by Armitage and Yanowsky. “Resonance” was previously presented in the 2013-14 season, but “Belong” is new. Nissinen points out that it was Vesak who conceptualized “Lady of the Camellias,” which Caniparoli wound up choreographing after Vesak died, tragically, of a brain aneurysm in 1990. “This is a piece that I originally saw Evelyn Hart dance,” says Nissinen, “and it’s a very simple, gorgeous pas de deux.”
As for Armitage, who in the 1980s was dubbed the “punk ballerina,” he says that she and the company have been toying with a number of ideas over the years, including one major project, but that kept getting postponed. “So we decided that while we waited for the major project to happen, we would give her a world premiere.”
The season will also have an appetizer: a BB@home presentation, Sept. 17 and 19, at the company’s Clarendon Street headquarters devoted to Yakobson and commemorating the 40th anniversary of his death. The evening will include “Vestris” and “Rodin,” and it will be moderated by Janice Ross, author of the just-published “Like a Bomb Going Off: Leonid Yakobson and Ballet as Resistance in Soviet Russia.”Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.