Boston Ballet’s 2020–2021 season at the Citizens Bank Opera House will include six world premieres, Christopher Wheeldon’s version of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” the company’s first performance of a work by American Ballet Theatre artist in residence Alexei Ratmansky, and the return of “The Sleeping Beauty.” It’ll open in November with a William Forsythe “Triple Bill” and close in May with “ChoreograpHER,” part of the company’s multi-year ChoreograpHER initiative “in support of emerging female choreographers.”
Boston Ballet will actually begin its season with an October engagement in New York City, at the newly opened Shed cultural center on West 30th Street. The company will present “Triple Bill” — a Forsythe world premiere, “Blake Works I,” and “Playlist (EP)” — there before bringing the program to Boston (Nov. 5-15). The Forsythe world premiere, a co-commission with the Shed, will be set to a score by his frequent collaborator Thom Willems. “Blake Works I” and “Playlist (EP)” will be familiar, the company having staged them in March 2019. “Blake Works I,” which Forsythe created for the Paris Opera Ballet in 2016, is set to British singer-songwriter James Blake’s 2016 album “The Colour in Anything”; “Playlist (EP)” is set to Forsythe favorites, from Peven Everett’s “Surely Shorty” to Barry’s White’s “Sha La La Means I Love You.”
The Forsythe co-commission with the Shed, Boston Ballet artistic director Mikko Nissinen explains, came about because “we have some kindred spirits in New York, and they think that Bill is the greatest living choreographer in dance and ballet, and they really want to showcase him, and the best vehicle for that of course is Boston Ballet, since he’s made us now his new home base.” He adds, “We don’t have the exact dates yet, but it looks like a couple weeks.” As for the Forsythe premiere, Nissinen says that Willems is composing new music for the piece, “and Bill is talking about the dancers he wants to use, but there’s not much known about it yet.”
Following “The Nutcracker” (Nov. 27–Dec. 31), the spring season will begin with “Titans” (Feb. 18-28): another Forsythe world premiere, Ratmansky’s “Symphony No. 9,” and George Balanchine’s “Ballo della Regina.” This second Forsythe premiere doesn’t have music attached to it as yet. “I am in communication with Bill,” says Nissinen, “and he has several different ideas that he is evaluating, but there’s absolutely nothing concrete.”
“Symphony No. 9” is another matter. The title might prompt thoughts of Beethoven, Schubert, Dvořák, Bruckner, or Mahler. But the piece is actually the first part of Ratmansky’s “Shostakovich Trilogy,” which got its full-scale premiere from American Ballet Theatre in 2013. Ratmansky has made 11 Shostakovich ballets; this one is set to the symphony the composer was commissioned to write at the end of World War II. The Soviet authorities expected an epic in praise of Stalin and the Russian victory; what they got was a 25-minute piece full of humor.
Boston had never been much of a Shostakovich town, but that changed with the arrival of the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s current music director, Andris Nelsons. “I have heard from so many musicians that are big Shostakovich fans, and I can’t wait,” Nissinen says. “Our new music director [Mischa Santora] is very much looking forward to tackling this. We’ve talked to Alex for so many years about working with us in Boston, and finally it’s fruitful. I wanted something large-scale, we’ve done Mahler’s Third and Sibelius’s Fifth.” They talked about the other parts of the “Shostakovich Trilogy” — “Chamber Symphony” and “Piano Concerto No. 1” — but, says Nissinen, “because of the program and where it looked like it was going to go, I thought this would be the right match for the rest.”
As for “Ballo della Regina,” Nissinen recalls that it was on the first Balanchine program he made for Boston Ballet, in 2003, along with with “Monumentum pro Gesualdo,” “Movements for Piano and Orchestra,” and “Prodigal Son.” Set to the ballet music Giuseppe Verdi wrote for the third act of his opera “Don Carlos,” “Ballo” is a bravura piece that Balanchine created for Merrill Ashley in 1978. Boston Ballet last did it in 2007. “We haven’t seen ‘Ballo’ in ages,” Nissinen explains. “We’ve explored the Balanchine catalog in different directions. But it’s such a poppy, fresh ballet that’s so good when it’s danced well.” Not many ballerinas can dance it well, but Nissinen has confidence in his projected casts, saying, “I got the chops.”
March will bring “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” The last two times Boston Ballet presented the Shakespeare tale, in 2007 and 2011, it was the Balanchine setting. This time out (March 4-14), we’re getting Wheeldon’s 1997 version for Colorado Ballet, a piece that Nissinen staged when he was artistic director of Alberta Ballet in Calgary. “It’s interesting to see different versions of these epic ballets,” he says, “and we haven’t had much Wheeldon. We’ve done ‘Polyphonia,’ and I’ve been trying to get some of his rep into our programming, and I thought this would be a really nice way to introduce another production from him.”
How is this “Midsummer” different from other versions? “In the beginning there’s a prologue that sets the story a little differently. Everything comes from the Wheeldon brilliance, the clarity of his musicality and transitions and beautiful pas de deux. I really enjoy it.” Mendelssohn’s incidental music for Shakespeare’s play runs barely an hour; Wheeldon, like Balanchine, draws from the composer’s other work to flesh out the score.
“Midsummer” will be followed by “The Sleeping Beauty” (April 30–May 16), which last had a full run from the company in May 2017, though there was an “encore” week of performances in May 2018. Nissinen makes no apology for bringing it back so soon. “If you want to curate a ballet company, and of course we want to be the ballet company of the future, you need to show the key classics so people understand the progression in ballet. I think it’s very important to expose the audiences to the key classics to get a perspective on the art form.”
And finally, there’s “ChoreograpHER” (May 20-30), which will offer world premieres by Dutch choreographer Nanine Linning, New York City Ballet principal dancer Tiler Peck, former Boston Ballet principal dancer Melissa Hough, and, in collaboration, visual artist Shantell Martin and Boston Ballet principal dancer Lia Cirio. “Nanine Linning has never done anything in North America,” Nissinen points out, “so we’ll be introducing a new female voice. And I’m teaming with Emma McCormick-Goodhart to create a sort of concept statement for the evening. I am planning to still add more female artists into it, maybe utilizing the lobby space for pre-curtain events, intermission events, on stage, off stage. It’ll be a very different theatrical experience.”
Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.