For the second of its six virtual presentations of the 2020–2021 season, Boston Ballet is offering “The Gift” — and a very handsome one. The music for this holiday celebration is Duke Ellington’s 1960 “Nutcracker Suite,” jazz arrangements of the Tchaikovsky score by Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. Five company dancers plus a BB2 member and a BB School post graduate choreographed the nine selections, which were performed in the studio this month by a cast of more than 50. Boston Ballet’s dancers have always excelled at kicking up their heels, so this program is right up their alley.
“The Gift” opens, however, with a salute to the original ballet: a studio performance, by company principals Viktorina Kapitonova and Tigran Mkrtchyan, of the Grand Pas de Deux for the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier. It’s a challenge for dancers who are wearing masks and bereft of an orchestra (though principal solo pianist Alex Foaksman does a nice job accompanying), a live audience, and the context of the complete ballet. Mkrtchyan is an attentive partner, exemplary in the lifts at the end of the Adagio and light and neat in the modest demands of his Tarantella. Kapitonova, soft and regal, points the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy with explicit attention to the music and throws off an impressive set of traveling fouettés in the Coda.
Boston Ballet has been rehearsing in pods, for the sake of physical distancing, and that’s how the sections of the Ellington-Strayhorn “Nutcracker Suite” were divided up and performed. Chyrstyn Fentroy choreographed the “Overture,” Gabriel Lorena “Toot Toot Tootie Toot (Dance of the Reed-Pipes),” Haley Schwan “Peanut Brittle Brigade (March),” Paul Craig “Sugar Rum Cherry (Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy),” My’Kal Stromile “Entr’acte,” John Lam “The Volga Vouty (Russian Dance),” and Arianna Hughlett “Chinoiserie (Chinese Dance).” “Arabesque Cookie (Arabian Dance)” is a sequence of five solos where Schwan, Lam, Fentroy, Craig, and Stromile all choreograph one piece and dance in another. The finale, “Danse of the Floreadores (Waltz of the Flowers),” is choreographed and performed by all seven pods, each in turn. The dancers wear masks; costuming, ranging from rehearsal wear to dress shirts and pants and tulle skirts, is simple but creative.
It’s not as easy to set this music as you might think. Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite” is full of distinctive timbres: cheeky flutes in the Reed-Pipe and Chinese pieces, sensuous English horn for Arabian, twinkling celesta for Sugar Plum. The Ellington-Strayhorn arrangements are ’50s big-band jazz, a swinging listen but restricted in their color palette. The “Gift” choreographers provide the visual color while intertwining ballet with jazz and Broadway; you can detect the influence of Robbins and Fosse as well as Petipa and Balanchine, Kylián and Forsythe. We have shimmying shoulders, swiveling hips, thrusting pelvises, finger snapping, couples doing the Lindy, guys looking at girls, girls looking at guys, all mashed up with jetés, pirouettes, cabrioles, entrechats, double tours, and lots of delectable pointe work.
Everything is so fluid and spontaneous, the dancers seem to be making it up as they go along. The hipsters of Fentroy’s “Overture” go from chassé to sashay in a heartbeat. Lorena’s “Toot Toot Tootie Toot” has its seductive women, all in low heels, flouncing their calf-length red skirts and promenading in two-dimensional profile. Schwan’s “Peanut Brittle Brigade” is a jive party complete with champagne flutes. “Arabesque Cookie” serves up an elastic Stromile, a sinuous Schwan, a loose-limbed Craig, a slinky Fentroy, and a querying Lam. It’s hard not to have fun watching when the dancers are so obviously having fun dancing.
“The Gift” offers about 45 minutes of performance and is available to non-subscribers for $40. It’s well shot and gives you the kind of close-up look you wouldn’t easily get at the Opera House. What’s more, because you can watch the program as often as you want over the next 10 days, it’s the “Gift” that keeps on giving.
Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at email@example.com.