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Boston Ballet’s ‘Carmen’ program puts strong women in the spotlight

Choreographer Helen Pickett in rehearsal with Boston Ballet.Brooke Trisolini/Boston Ballet

While it may not have been the initial theme, Boston Ballet’s upcoming “Carmen” program (March 12-22 at the Citizens Bank Opera House) seems to come into focus as a celebration of strong, complex women. In addition to the feisty antiheroine of the title piece by company resident choreographer Jorma Elo, and “Serenade,” George Balanchine’s luminous ode to young ballerinas, award-winning dancemaker Helen Pickett contributes two evocative ballets — “Petal” and “Tsukiyo.”

“It’s a really special program that highlights every aspect of a woman — the sassiness of a woman, the strength, sensuality, camaraderie,” says Boston Ballet principal dancer Lia Cirio, who will perform the role of Carmen as well as dance in both of Pickett’s ballets. “I think it’s a really beautiful, very positive show.”


The evening suggests an evolution of womanhood, beginning with Balanchine’s landmark “Serenade.” The choreographer’s first original ballet created in America, the work is set to Tchaikovsky’s stirring “Serenade for Strings” and was originally created as a lesson in stage technique for aspiring ballerinas. “The whole ballet is about a regular woman turning into a ballerina, and what a masterpiece it is,” says Boston Ballet artistic director Mikko Nissinen. “It is an absolutely gorgeous essence of a woman, of a dream of a woman and dream of a ballet all in one. Every time I watch it, I still find it fresh.”

The evening takes a different turn with the works of Helen Pickett. Boston Ballet gave Pickett her first ever choreographic commission in 2005 and has commissioned five works in total from her. An impressive commitment to Pickett’s talent and artistic development, it has translated into a kind of collaborative dialogue she says she is able to have with dancers she has worked with over many years. “We understand each others’ movement ideas,” she says. “You can have conversations without words. There’s a symbiosis through art, and I really value that.”


In fact, Pickett’s “Petal” comes full circle with the upcoming Boston Ballet presentation. The seeds of the ballet were planted here in 2007 through a grant from the New York Choreographic Institute and resulted in a 10-minute piece for a Boston Ballet in-studio workshop. Pickett later developed the piece into a full ballet for Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, and this marks the first time the complete version of the work will be seen in Boston.

Pickett recalls a key moment of inspiration, walking by a flower shop and being taken by the vibrant explosion of colors. “It was this visceral moment of buds in spring, of life bursting forth,” she says, “and the colors and the kinetic relationship between the dancers came to reflect the vigor of nature.”

The work is not just about the sensory swirl of colors and patterns, Pickett says, but also about communication and connection. “It’s a celebration of the birth of color, the sound and touch of the human being, without which we would all wither.”

Pickett says the intimate duet “Tsukiyo” is also about the power of touch, but in a more sensual vein. She calls it a kind of “fated meeting” freighted with anticipation. “I want audiences to live in the possibility of what can happen between two people.”

Nissinen calls it “very steamy, very personal.” He adds with a laugh, “The funnest compliment I heard from someone was that after watching it, they felt like they needed a cigarette.”


Dancers Lia Cirio and Lasha Khozashvili rehearse "Carmen" with choreographer Jorma Elo.Brooke Trisolini/Boston Ballet

And then there’s “Carmen,” which Jorma Elo has brought firmly into the 20th century. The ballet plays out to Rodion Shchedrin’s version of music from Georges Bizet’s beloved opera. While embracing the familiar story’s themes of passion, jealousy, and betrayal, Elo’s ballet also touches on contemporary issues of wealth and celebrity. “These are the social categories we are dealing with now, how people are divided,” Elo says. “It’s interesting to see individuals come out of that who don’t respect the rules. What happens to them? I wanted to create a woman who is among us and what our society is like now. She doesn’t care about social structures or financial status and having to be approved. She is just enjoying life on her own terms. … And she gets joy out of having fun with the opposite sex.”

Elo, who has been Boston Ballet’s resident choreographer for 15 years, is famous for welcoming the opportunity to revisit and reshape each iteration of his work. This will be his third version of “Carmen” for the company, and Lia Cirio has danced the title role in each one. The design is sleekly contemporary — those expecting a Spanish diva with a rose clenched between her teeth will be disappointed. However, Cirio believes the emotional narrative and the complexity of the character will come through. “Jorma is diving even deeper into the story and listening attentively to the music and trying to interpret the story through the music,” she says. “I’m trying to figure out who Carmen really is, what her desires are. I’m trying to find her nuances.”



Presented by Boston Ballet, at Citizens Bank Opera House, March 12-22.

Tickets $42-$194, 617-695-6955,

Karen Campbell can be reached at