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Boston Ballet, moving in the right direction

Bradley Schlagheck and Kathleen Breen Combes in a dress rehearsal for “Chroma” in May.Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff

There are people who feel that a cultural disadvantage of living in a relatively small city like Boston is that they don’t get to see first-class ballet. I am not one of those people.

Over the past 30 years, I’ve watched Boston Ballet rise in stature to the point where it can stand on a tier just below the Big Apple pair of New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre, alongside such acclaimed companies as Houston Ballet and San Francisco Ballet. It may not yet be an international star of the magnitude of the Boston Symphony Orchestra or the Museum of Fine Arts. But it’s moving in the right direction.

The main thing I’ve liked about Boston Ballet is its personality. This is a friendly company; forget about the backbiting you saw in the movie “Black Swan.” The artistic directors have been approachable. So are the dancers. You can go up and talk to them in the street. Fans have their favorites; it’s a wonder the Ballet boutique doesn’t offer shirts with dancers’ names on the back. Principals, soloists, and corps members hang out with one another, which is not the case in every company. You could say that Boston Ballet is to New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre what the Red Sox are to the Yankees: Lacking a roster of high-profile stars, it relies on team chemistry and community outreach.

I’ve also liked the company’s broad-minded definition of just what ballet is. In the early years, it staged story ballets — “Giselle,” “Coppélia,” “The Sleeping Beauty,” and “Swan Lake” — and it was the beneficiary of a generous number of works from George Balanchine, who in the 1960s became friends with the company’s founder, E. Virginia Williams. But its repertoire also included everything from the buoyant, exuberant “Napoli” of early-19th-century Danish choreographer August Bournonville to Agnes de Mille’s rowdy “Rodeo” and the abstraction of Merce Cunningham’s “Winterbranch.”


In a city that loves tradition, Boston Ballet’s cozy, comfort-food “Nutcracker,” with its cute mice and 40-foot Christmas tree, has slotted right in alongside the Boston Marathon and Fourth of July on the Esplanade and Handel and Haydn’s “Messiah.” But the company has also continued to explore nontraditional forms of ballet. We’ve seen its dancers slouch their way through Mark Morris’s “Mort Subite,” jive to Twyla Tharp’s “Waterbaby Bagatelles,” and go bare-breasted in Jirí Kylián’s “Bella Figura.” I even have fond memories of “Shake It Up,” a mid-’80s suite of dances set to songs by the popular Boston band the Cars.


The company has especially taken to its resident choreographer: Artistic director Mikko Nissinen’s fellow Finn, Jorma Elo. Elo’s works are now being performed worldwide, but the Boston Ballet dancers are the ones he spends the most time with, and it shows in their performances. “Elo Experience,” an evening-length spectacle that the company presented in 2011, incorporated excerpts from Elo’s previous works into a kind of 21st-century gloss on “Swan Lake.” It was a triumphant event.

The company also has a broad-minded approach to what a dancer looks like. In the 20th century, New York City Ballet set the American standard: Balanchine’s ideal woman was tall and slim, with a small head, small breasts, slim hips, and long legs. Companies like the Royal Ballet in London, the Paris Opera Ballet, and the Mariinsky Ballet (formerly the Kirov) in St. Petersburg have the economic resources to create a female corps of such dancers. Boston Ballet does not. Its corps has always come in all shapes and sizes, and though uniformity is pleasing, it’s also nice to see a variety of body types dancing together. The same is true for the company’s principals. One of Boston Ballet’s most electrifying partnerships in the past 30 years was that of Patrick Armand and Trinidad Sevillano. They were shorter and had muscular legs, but in the early 1990s they melted hearts in everything from “Giselle” to “Cinderella.”


Boston Ballet has rarely tried to wow audiences with how high its dancers can jump, or how fast they can turn. That’s also partly a matter of economics: The company doesn’t have the money to attract established stars who put a premium on pyrotechnics. But since his arrival in 2002, Nissinen has steadily raised the overall standard, particularly in the area of corps ensemble. True, heads can still be slightly askew in repose, arms not held at the same angle, feet not pointed in the same direction. But this has become a company with solid technique.

And its best dancers integrate their technique into their artistry rather than using it to show off. In 2004, Lorna Feijóo was invited to dance the lead role in Balanchine’s “Ballo della Regina” at New York City Ballet. What’s more, she received her invitation from Merrill Ashley, the dancer for whom Balanchine created the role. Feijóo might not have had Ashley’s amplitude, but she compensated with speed and a teasing spontaneity. And she impressed Anna Kisselgoff, who in The New York Times called her performance “fabulous” and “not to be missed.” I was glad I didn’t miss it.


That kind of expressivity is not new to Boston Ballet. The principals whom artistic director Bruce Marks assembled in the 1990s — Armand, Sevillano, Paul Thrussell, Rob Wallace, Olivier Wecxsteen, Pollyana Ribeiro, Jennifer Gelfand, Adriana Suárez — were individuals with attitude as well as technique. Larissa Ponomarenko, in particular, appeared to be a classic dancer in the Russian mold when she arrived at the Ballet in 1993, but she proved she could do everything, from modern story ballets (John Cranko’s “Onegin” and “The Taming of the Shrew”) to high-speed acrobatics (Tharp’s “In the Upper Room”) to lowbrow humor (her uncanny Lucille Ball imitation in Daniel Pelzig’s “The Princess and the Pea”).

And then there’s Kathleen Breen Combes, one of my favorite dancers on the current roster. Breen Combes combines sweet and sexy, with swivel hips, shimmying shoulders, and dreamy phrasing. One moment she’s making bedroom eyes at donkey Bottom as Titania in Balanchine’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”; the next, she’s snapping off an upside-down split kick in William Forsythe’s “The Second Detail.” In 2009, she and her husband, Yury Yanowsky, were heart-rending in the pas de deux of Balanchine’s “Diamonds.” I saw all five of their performances, then watched Suzanne Farrell and Peter Martins — the gold standard in Balanchine — in the same pas de deux on the 1977 New York City Ballet videotape. I didn’t think Breen Combes and Yanowsky were outclassed.

New York Times dance critic Alastair Macaulay doesn’t seem to have thought so either. After seeing Breen Combes in Balanchine’s “Diamonds” and “Rubies,” he described her as “the archetypal Balanchine ballerina.” During the company’s London tour in July, she also caught the eye of hard-to-please Financial Times critic Clement Crisp, who wrote, “I confess to having fallen more than a little for Kathleen Breen Combes.
. . . She is beautiful, elegant, her every action inevitable.”


In this company, even corps members get the chance to excel in principal roles. Karla Kovatch was in the corps in 2003 when she danced the Siren in Balanchine’s “Prodigal Son.” I saw Paris Opera Ballet stars Agnès Letestu and Marie-Agnès Gillot do the role later that year in Paris and actually preferred Kovatch. This spring, corps member Seo Hye Han had featured roles in Balanchine’s “Serenade” and “Symphony in C” and Wayne McGregor’s “Chroma,” and she held her own nicely.

Larissa Ponomarenko (far left) and Jeffrey Cirio (on floor) in “Elo Experience” in 2011. Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/file 2011

It’s no surprise, then, that the corps is so lively onstage. The background dancers in story ballets are full of business: They talk, they flirt, they argue, they gossip. In the 1989 production of Choo San Goh’s “Romeo and Juliet,” while Romeo and Juliet were discovering each other at the Capulet ball, an attentive observer could have spotted Simon Dow’s Tybalt making more than eye contact with his aunt, Denise Pons’s Lady Capulet, behind the curtains.

This is, in other words, a company that tells stories. But not just in story ballets. Writing about its second London program in the Guardian, Judith Mackrell said that for her, Kylián’s “Bella Figura” lacks “conceptual heart” and then added, “With Boston Ballet, however, ‘Bella Figura’ looks like a much more human piece.” I would suggest that’s because Boston Ballet’s dancers put much more human emotion into it. When Kylián’s own company, Nederlands Dans Theater, does “Bella Figura,” the dancers execute the movement as if it were an enigmatic foreign language. Boston Ballet dancers do it as if it were a story they had written themselves. They don’t just execute the movement, they live it.

Finally, there’s the music. One cannot overrate the importance of live music in dance. Since 1988, Boston Ballet has had the same music director, Jonathan McPhee. He’s worked with Balanchine and Martha Graham; he’s conducted at New York City Ballet and the Royal. His style is straightforward, but he shapes the music with feeling, with detail, and with an eye for what the dancers are doing. I consider him one of the best ballet conductors out there, and I’m not alone.

Back in 2001, Boston Ballet trustee Susan Y. Friedman stated that the company’s sights were set on becoming “one of the world’s top 10 ballet companies by 2010.” Such a goal seemed overly ambitious. In fact, I can’t imagine that Boston Ballet will ever have the resources to compete with New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre, the Royal, Paris Opera Ballet, the Bolshoi, or the Mariinsky. But rising to this point is a significant achievement — one that, at the ripe age of 50, is worth celebrating.

Meanwhile, the current team of Nissinen and executive director Barry Hughson has put the organization on a sound financial footing — a solid foundation for the future. What lies in store for the next 50 years? Maybe the goal of being one of the world’s top 10 ballet companies isn’t out of reach.

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