One might expect a ballet created to celebrate feminine strength and resilience to fill the stage with vibrant women. But in Paulo Arrais’s “ELA, Rhapsody in Blue,” given its world premiere at the Citizens Bank Opera House, there is only one lone woman in white amid a sea of 13 men in open-coated black suits, chests bared. Yet somehow, that stroke of choreographic vision strikingly brings the point home, especially when the solo role is danced by Kathleen Breen Combes, as it was in Thursday’s opening night of “Rhapsody.” One of the company’s most technically polished and dramatically assured ballerinas, the 37-year-old Combes is retiring at the end of the program’s run, but she’s going out at the top of her game in a role that radiantly showcases her talents.
“Ela” means “her” in Portuguese, and the Brazilian-born Arrais’s ballet was inspired by the female influences in his life. Set to Gershwin’s popular score, played live with Christopher O’Riley on solo piano, the ballet traces a loose scenario. A woman dreams, revels in her burgeoning femininity, holding a phalanx of men in her thrall before falling under the spell of one, Patric Palkens. Their pas de deux subtly morphs between seductive tenderness and manipulative control hinting at abuse. But out of their union comes a child, who Derek Dunn lucidly takes from awkward infant to strapping young man. As Breen lets him go, she is lifted aloft to embrace her own power.
“ELA” marks an impressive choreographic debut at the Opera House for principal dancer Arrais, with inventive, compelling movement ranging from intricate, sophisticated partnering to eye-catching patterning with the large group. Company artistic director Mikko Nissinen created costume and scenic design, with evocative smoke and strip lighting.
Three works showcased Soviet choreographer Leonid Yakobson, including the company premiere of “Vestris.” Born in the same year as Balanchine, Yakobson was highly influential and prolific. However, Balanchine emigrated west and found legendary success, while Yakobson stayed in Russia, where his imaginative, athletic works were often censored by Soviet authorities and he was seen as a symbol of political resistance. Originally choreographed for a young Mikhail Baryshnikov, “Vestris” is a technical and comedic tour de force reeling through a flurry of characters, from limping old man to imperious dandy to drunken buffoon, and Dunn’s brilliant turns, buoyant leaps, deep musicality, and fanciful comic flair brought each to life with masterful command.
Four couples gave stirring performances of another company premiere, Yakobson’s “Rodin.” The four duets unfurled with molten weight and muscular lyricism, arresting shapes reflecting the titular artist’s sculptures. The Yakobson opener, “Pas de Quatre” is a total charmer for four women. Despite some ensemble awkwardness and imprecision, solos were splendid, and the linked-hands quartet is a real feat of choreographic engineering,
Balanchine’s glorious “Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 2,” designed to reflect the splendor of the choreographer’s native St. Petersburg, was the rich icing to a very dense cake. It was almost too much for this jam-packed concert, a slightly jarring shift of gears programmatically. However, it beautifully showcased the company at its classical best with nary a wasted gesture. An impeccably regal Lia Cirio, effervescent Ji Young Chae, and dashing Patrick Yocum led the large ensemble through precise unison footwork and breathtaking patterns that etched the stage with ever-evolving lines and swirls.
Presented by Boston Ballet. At Citizens Bank Opera House, May 16 (through June 9). Tickets $37-$169, 617-695-6955, www.bostonballet.org