George Balanchine may have said, “Ballet is woman,” but he was talking about dancers. When it comes to choreographing, ballet is mostly men. In 2018, Boston Ballet launched an initiative to encourage more women to create dances as well as perform them. The fruit of that initiative, “ChoreograpHER,” opened Thursday at the Citizens Bank Opera House. Presenting five world premieres by five women, it asks whether ballet wouldn’t benefit from more women choreographers and answers with a magnificent, resounding yes.
Boston Ballet artistic director Mikko Nissinen didn’t get just any “ChoreograpHERs” for this dance card. He has a New York City Ballet principal in Tiler Peck and Boston Ballet’s senior principal woman in Lia Cirio. Claudia Schreier is choreographer in residence with Atlanta Ballet; Bessie winner Melissa Toogood is a former Merce Cunningham dancer currently with Pam Tanowitz. Shantell Martin is a British visual artist making her choreographic debut here; her commissioners have included New York City Ballet.
Peck’s “Point of Departure” is set to Pulitzer Prize winner Caroline Shaw’s “Thousandth Orange,” a piano quartet (played onstage here) where the piano goes in one direction and the strings in another. Dressed in bright pastels, Peck’s three women and three men strike a classical tableau to begin; then they show us what figures on a Grecian urn might get up to when we’re not looking. It’s like reading Keats while listening to Charles Ives. The movement, like the music, can be unexpected: Derek Dunn climbs on Tigran Mkrtchyan’s back, Chyrstyn Fentroy and Patrick Yocum threaten to jitterbug. Everybody ends up back in the original tableau, but after what we’ve seen and heard, it doesn’t look the same.
Toogood took her “Butterflies Don’t Write Books” title from a Mary Oliver essay and commissioned her score, “Turbines 1 through 4,” from Jeff Klein; this and the rest of the music on the program is performed live by the Boston Ballet Orchestra under music director Mischa Santora. The piece starts in dim light, to the slow pounding of a bass drum, as the six standing dancers struggle to come to life. They fall and crawl; at one point everyone turns in awkward attitude. The music brightens, then explodes, and the dancers cut loose, but they barely interact. At the end they’re still going their own way.
Cirio assembled a suite of chamber music for “Chaptered in Fragments.” To a transcription of a Handel Sarabande (superbly played by senior principal solo pianist Freda Locker), Soo Bin Lee stalks the stage alone. Eventually we see the other six dancers processing behind a scrim. Lee pairs with Paul Craig, uncertainly, as if they were Odette and Siegfried in “Swan Lake.” We get sinuous Shostakovich, folky Dvořák, and what looks like an exuberant finale with Brahms, but then the Sarabande returns and Lee and Craig dance elegantly behind the scrim, as if in swan heaven.
Set to John Adams’s “Tromba Lontana” and “Short Ride in a Fast Machine,” Martin’s “Kites” has one of her trademark large black-and-white drawings as a backdrop, all lines and faces and words like “Powerful” and “Proud” and “When You Are You.” Her 11 dancers show how drawing can be choreographing, as they form circles, conga lines, opposite lines that run through each other. They raise their arms in supplication, do semaphore, suggest children’s games. Polyrhythmic ecstasy breaks out until they rise like kites.
The music for Schreier’s “Slipstream” is Tanner Porter’s “Six Sides from the Shape of Us,” which makes reference to the hexagonal honeycombs of a beehive. The 18 dancers are in continuous motion, like a community evolving over the course of a year. Unusual lifts feature in a clingy duet for Viktorina Kapitonova and Lasha Khozashvili and elsewhere, and there’s a signature backbending sequence, but the focus is on Cirio, who keeps losing track of her would-be partner, Patric Palkens. Even as the curtain falls, she seems to walk away, leaving him in her slipstream.
Presented by Boston Ballet. At: Citizens Bank Opera House, through March 13. Tickets $39-$164. 617-695-6955, www.bostonballet.org
Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.