“Shades of Sound,” Boston Ballet’s current repertory program, earns its name. The bill opens with Wayne McGregor’s white-out “Chroma” and closes with Hans van Manen’s “Black Cake.” Sandwiched in between is one of George Balanchine’s under-celebrated black-and-white ballets, “Episodes.” Thursday evening at the Opera House, Boston Ballet turned the trio into a kaleidoscope.
McGregor made “Chroma” for the Royal Ballet in 2006; Boston Ballet first did it in 2013. The white box of a set that the choreographer commissioned from minimalist architect John Pawson is meant, he says, to create a canvas on which the six men and four women can move, in costumes that match their skin tones. And to a score that combines Joby Talbot’s orchestrations of White Stripes songs with Talbot’s own compositions, McGregor challenges the dancers to find new ways to engage the body.
The cast that Boston Ballet sent out Thursday was identical to the opening-night cast in 2013, so this was familiar territory. Kathleen Breen Combes started it off by bobbing at Bradley Schlagheck as if they were ducks preparing to mate. Whitney Jensen seemed to have ball bearings for joints, and yet the more extreme her extensions, the more constricted McGregor’s choreography looked. Jeffrey Cirio, John Lam, and Isaac Akiba contributed a boys’ night out; Lia Cirio and Lasha Khozashvili were a bit abstract in the first slow duet, but Breen Combes made the second one graphically sensuous.
It’s hard not to like “Chroma.” The last section, a “change partners and dance” for the ensemble, sounds like Leonard Bernstein’s score for “On the Town” and looks as if it were being choreographed by Charles Ives. The piece comes to a stunning finish as all 10 dancers freeze with their backs to the audience.
All the same, in “Episodes,” Balanchine shows McGregor how it’s done. This piece started out as a joint effort between Balanchine and Martha Graham to be set to music by Anton Webern. It was never a collaboration; the two choreographers worked separately, and the piece premiered in 1959 as “Episodes I” (Graham) and “Episodes II” (Balanchine). Since 1960, New York City Ballet has performed just the Balanchine section, minus the solo he created for Paul Taylor, as “Episodes.” “Webern’s orchestral music fills the air like molecules; it is written for atmosphere,” Balanchine wrote, and that applies to the choreography as well.
The four sections are set to Webern’s “Symphony,” “Five Pieces,” “Concerto,” and “Ricercata,” his arrangement of the “Ricercar a 6” from Bach’s “A Musical Offering.” It’s all cries and whispers, mutterings and flutterings, a universe within a few bars. Balanchine’s choreography is as implacable as what he created for “The Four Temperaments” and “Agon,” but Thursday’s performance, backed by a gentle reading from the Boston Ballet Orchestra under Jonathan McPhee, looked soft-edged and self-conscious. Only Dusty Button, dancing “Five Pieces” with Khozashvili, appeared to have passed into the other dimension the music conjures; the highlight of their duet was the moment when she clings to him upside down, her legs seeming to sprout from his head like deer antlers. Lia Cirio was nicely elusive as Paulo Arrais’s quarry in “Concerto,” and Ashley Ellis was elegant in “Ricercata,” but “Episodes” could do with more speed and snap.
Van Manen created “Black Cake” in 1989, to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Nederlands Dans Theater, and it’s full of black humor. In the opening scene, set to the scherzo from Tchaikovsky’s “Pathétique” Symphony, 12 guests in black party attire form couples and square off in ballroom dances suggesting the tango and the paso doble. There’s lots of attitude between the sexes, and even a hint of bull and matador.
Three pas de deux follow. Dancing to the sweet first Adagio from Janácek’s Suite for String Orchestra, Misa Kuranaga and Eris Nezha embodied painfully serious young love. Erica Cornejo and Jeffrey Cirio were hilarious as the second pair, who, to the bouncing strains of Stravinsky’s “Scherzo à la russe,” pogo-stick to see who’s taller. At one point Cirio was dancing on all fours; later he put his hand on Cornejo’s head and dribbled her like a basketball. When at the end he dragged her off, she shrugged and checked her nail polish. Ellis and Khozashvili had the grand-passion duet set to the Intermezzo from Mascagni’s “L’amico Fritz,” and they hammed it up, sulking, pouting, throwing each other about, desperately embracing, looking daggers at each other.
For the final section, the ensemble returns, now with Champagne flutes, and there’s a spate of party chatter. Then the “Meditation” from Massenet’s “Thaïs” kicks in, and the guests start to stagger about, coming downstage and staring at the audience, looking forlornly at their empty glasses, bursting into tears before a waiter appears with refills. Boyko Dossev was deadpan supercilious as the waiter, but it was Cornejo’s party, from the shimmy in her shoulders to her transfixingly boozy smile.