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This Boston Ballet dance gets freed up — through corsets

Junxiong Zhao and Misa Kuranaga.Christopher Duggan/Boston Ballet

Yury Yanowsky retired as a Boston Ballet principal dancer a year ago after 21 seasons with the company, but he has never had more on his dance card than right now.

“I’m a zombie,” he confesses with a laugh.

Yanowsky and Boston Ballet principal dancer Kathleen Breen Combes’s daughter Cora was born March 8, and as a new father, he’s understandably sleep-deprived. Meanwhile, he’s also in the throes of bringing to life another, very different kind of baby: his first major ballet commissioned for a subscription performance on the Boston Opera House stage. Titled “Smoke and Mirrors,” the work will make its world premiere May 6 on Boston Ballet’s “Mirrors” program.


It involves, of all things, corsets.

Yanowsky’s two babies are not unrelated. While the choreographer and his wife were visiting his family in Spain with the happy news that they were expecting, discussion turned to the old tradition of wearing a corset post-partum to help support healing muscles and slim the figure. Yanowsky’s mother, a former dancer, brought out his grandmother’s old corset, and Combes tried it on for fun. Yanowsky grabbed hold and began playfully twirling his wife around. An idea was born.

While, historically, corsets have been used for constriction, the 42-year-old Yanowsky saw only freedom and possibility. He began experimenting with an expanded range of partnering, developing new techniques to take advantage of what the corsets could facilitate. Boston Ballet’s manager of costumes and wardrobe, Charles Heightchew, designed and customized the handmade corsets with handles that allow the male dancers to manipulate their female partners very differently from the way they do in traditional partnering. Swings and swivels, lifts and carries, suspensions and balances, slides and glides — all have a visceral physicality. The handles also facilitate intricate contortions and deep leans. The gimmickry of the corsets is lost in the rush of extended, free-flowing movement.


For the men, Yanowsky says, the corsets provide a totally different grip, allowing significantly more wrist rotation for positioning, but the palms take a beating from the friction of the handles.

For the women, meanwhile, the corsets are truly a mixed blessing. “It is a really great feeling and you have more room to explore movement,” says Boston Ballet soloist Rachele Buriassi. “But it’s also really hard because you have to keep yourself together, you can’t just let go. And the corset is very tight, strong, and thick. It feels great to take it off!”

“Smoke and Mirrors” is choreographed for seven couples. Though it has no narrative, Yanowsky says its pas de deux reflect different parts of a dancer’s life. “We are always very concerned about our bodies,” he notes. “How do we look getting older, as we are fighting to preserve ourselves?”

Choreographer Yury Yanowsky in rehearsal with Misa Kuranga for “Smoke and Mirrors.”Christopher Duggan, courtesy Boston Ballet

Citing the ubiquity of social media, he adds, “Everything today is about how we look, and the title reflects that. How do we project ourselves, and are we being true to ourselves? The movement is about searching for something, but I like to leave it very open, abstract, so people can enjoy the ride.”

Yanowsky’s cousin, Goya Award-winning Spanish composer Lucas Vidal, wrote the work’s minimalist, moody score. The youngest Berklee College of Music student to score and record a feature film for full orchestra, Vidal is best known for the score of “Fast & Furious 6.” But he has also collaborated on several other works with his cousin. The two lived together when Vidal was a student.


“I think Yury’s a genius,” Vidal said during a recent phone chat. “His choreography is amazing. I remember as a young kid, we would come to Javea on the coast of Spain and he would be doing choreography [for] all the cousins from a very early age. Now working with him as a full choreographer is an honor. I think this is the best work he has done so far.”

Yanowsky began seriously exploring choreography in the late ’90s, and over the years he created numerous works for Boston Ballet-affiliated performances and his company colleagues, from whom he takes great inspiration. “They’re amazing. I have known some of them for 15 years, and they know where I want to go with [the choreography]. The skeleton is there, and they’re the ones that put the flesh and soul on it.”

As a performer himself, Yanowsky won several prestigious awards and was acclaimed for his passion and versatility. “He has one of the best bodies in the business, a beautiful shape, and he’s strong as a bull and flexible,” says Boston Ballet artistic director Mikko Nissinen. “He pushed himself into his 40s . . . and walked out healthy at the top of his game. Incredible! Who does that?”

Since retiring as a performer, Yanowsky has wasted no time distinguishing himself in his new career path, recently winning the Erik Bruhn Competition’s Choreographic Prize for his work “District.” Hamburg Ballet II premiered another of his works in April, and he is creating a world premiere for the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival’s gala program in June. He is exploring another project with Vidal and hopes to choreograph not just for ballet companies, but also for projects in video, film, and opera, “So I don’t get stuck doing the same thing,” he says. “I can refresh.”


Yanowsky views the upcoming premiere of “Smoke and Mirrors” as an “amazing opportunity,” and Nissinen believes it could be an effective springboard for lifting his choreographic career to a new level. “It’s almost like a parting gift,” Nissinen says. “He’s gonna fly and try his wings in the big world, and he has a real chance of making a name for himself.”

Smoke and Mirrors

Presented by Boston Ballet. At the Boston Opera House, May 6-28. Tickets $35-$159. 617-695-6955, www.bostonballet.org

Karen Campbell can be reached at karencampbell4@rcn.com.