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DANCE REVIEW

Boston Ballet revisits Yakobson gems and previews new work for spring

Corina Gill and Isaac Akiba in Leonid Yakobson's "Rodin."
Corina Gill and Isaac Akiba in Leonid Yakobson's "Rodin."Rachel Neville Photography; courtesy of Boston Ballet

The third virtual program in Boston Ballet’s 2020–21 subscription season, “Look Back, Focus Forward,” mostly looks back to the company’s performances of Soviet choreographer Leonid Yakobson. In the program introduction, Boston Ballet artistic director Mikko Nissinen calls Yakobson a “monumental choreographer” who “transformed the art form,” and though Boston Ballet last presented Yakobson’s work in 2019, it’s still a treat to watch these pieces again. The hourlong program is rounded out with Nissinen’s reflections on touring and then a quick preview of a new work, “Zoom In,” by former Nederlands Dans Theater dancer Ken Ossola that Boston Ballet will present in April in the final virtual program of the season.

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Born in 1904, the same year as George Balanchine, Yakobson, unlike Mr. B, remained in the Soviet Union, a Jewish avant-garde choreographer in constant conflict with party officials. Boston Ballet performed his “Pas de Quatre” in March 2016 and then reprised that piece in May and June 2019 along with selections from Yakobson’s “Rodin” and the seven-minute solo, “Vestris,” that he created for Mikhail Baryshnikov in 1969.

The inspiration for “Vestris” was Auguste Vestris (1760–1842), an étoile in the Paris Opera Ballet for 36 years. Clad in a Baroque jacket and breeches and wearing a powdered wig, company principal Derek Dunn makes his way through “An Old Man Dancing the Minuet,” “The Coquette Dance,” “The Preacher-Prophet,” “Classical Dance Variations,” “Prayer,” “Laughter,” and “Dying Man.” Dunn is contained, but the variety is there, and so, in the “Classical Dance Variations,” is the quality of execution.

The original “Pas de Quatre” was Jules Perrot’s 1845 salute to the four greatest ballerinas of his time: Lucile Grahn, Carlotta Grisi, Fanny Cerrito, and Marie Taglioni. Perrot’s choreography has not survived; Yakobson’s 1971 re-creation retains the Romantic tulle tutus but draws on Vincenzo Bellini’s 1831 opera “Norma” for most of the music. Dancing the opening section to “Casta diva,” Yakobson’s ballerinas might be Bellini’s Druidic priestesses as they hold hands and wreath arms, moving like a single organism. The four solos that follow, delicate hops and jumps and beats, with airy port de bras, have to be light but also precise. The 2019 cast shown here — Maria Baranova, Ji Young Chae, Nina Matiashvili, and Ekaterine Chubinidze — is a fine one; the solos from Baranova and Chae are especially beautiful.

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The initial 1958 version of “Rodin” was a triptych of miniatures set to Debussy, Yakobson breathing life into the French sculptor’s “The Eternal Spring,” “The Kiss,” and “The Eternal Idol.” Overtly sexual, “Rodin” was labeled pornographic by Soviet authorities, who made the dancers don Grecian tunics over their flesh-hued unitards. The performance shown here was filmed at Jacob’s Pillow in August 2019, and though the dancers sport the original unitards, the choreography has lost most of its shock value. Abigail Merlis and Sun Woo Lee are spontaneous and teasing in “The Eternal Spring,” which I think is the best of the three pieces. María Álvarez and Alec Roberts in “The Kiss” and Emily Entingh and Michael Ryan in “The Eternal Idol” have a harder time making Yakobson look transformative.

The next segment of the program takes the form of a conversation between Nissinen and Boston Ballet principal Lia Cirio in which they reminisce about the company’s tours to Helsinki (2012), London (2013), New York (2014), and Paris (2019). Nissinen argues that touring is important for “external validation” and that a company with the quality and repertoire of Boston Ballet deserves to be seen abroad; it’s hard to disagree. The visual highlight here is the siciliana from “Bella Figura” (which the company took to London and New York), nine bare-chested men and women in long puffy red skirts swaying sinuously without the least hint of prurience. Boston Ballet had planned to reprise “Bella Figura” in May 2020; I hope the company will be able to present it again soon.

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“Look Back, Focus Forward” concludes with Ossola, in Amsterdam, explaining how he’s able to set a new work via Zoom on dancers in five different studios. Ossola himself is not new to Boston Ballet, having staged “Bella Figura” for the company on multiple occasions. We don’t learn much about his piece, apart from the clever title, but it’s reassuring to see dance being created even in these difficult times.

LOOK BACK, FOCUS FORWARD

Presented by Boston Ballet at bostonballet.org through Jan. 31. Spring subscription $120 (four programs). 617-695-6955, www.bostonballet.org

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



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