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For young dancers and little-seen works, a ‘First Look’

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Graham Johns and Abigail Merlis.
Graham Johns and Abigail Merlis.The Boston Globe/Globe Freelance

Boston Ballet will provide multiple first glimpses in a Saturday performance titled "First Look" — of young dancers in its second company and of relatively unknown works by George Balanchine and Twyla Tharp.

New members of Boston Ballet II will perform together for the first time, alongside returning members and some dancers selected from the company's summer dance program.

Peter Stark, associate director of Boston Ballet II, describes the dancers as "essentially the apprentices for Boston Ballet" who are often pulled into performances with the first company. Some of the new members are alumni from the Boston Ballet School, while others come from all over the country.


Part of the reason for the performance — a new addition to Boston Ballet's calendar — was to better integrate the company before the 2016-17 season kicks off in October.

"What happened was that some of the dancers came from our school and some came from outside, and then as we started the season, it was kind of just like putting all the ingredients together and hoping for the best," Stark said. "We felt like the more green dancers were disadvantaged having not worked together as a group, and not worked within our system."

Saturday's show will also provide many Boston audience members with a first look at two works by iconic choreographers: Balanchine's "Haieff Divertimento," which has apparently been performed by only one other major ballet company since New York City Ballet revived it 23 years ago, and an excerpt from Twyla Tharp's "As Time Goes By," an acclaimed work that has been little seen since its 1973 debut with the Joffrey Ballet.

"The whole title of the performance is 'First Look,' so I got really excited about seeing things for the first time," said Margaret Tracey, director of the Boston Ballet School. "Seeing young talent for the first time, seeing ballets by well known people for the first time."


The performance will also feature August Bournonville's "Napoli," a classic that Tracey described as "celebratory," and several shorter works, rounding out a diverse repertoire that challenged the young dancers.

"The girls have to balance on pointe," said Lucy Nevin, one of the summer dance program students, of the Balanchine piece. "And I could not do that before this, but you're forced to. Every time we run that, I sweat."

Nilas Martins, a former New York City Ballet dancer who staged the "Haieff Divertimento" with Boston Ballet, emphasized the quickness of the work's steps.

"A lot of times the sequences are fast, and the footwork is very precise," Martins said. The dancers are pushed into angular, physically demanding positions throughout the piece, including a subtle and tightly-controlled solo for the lead female dancer.

Two of the new Boston Ballet II dancers, Graham Johns of Glen Ridge, N.J., and Abigail Merlis of Westport, Conn., dance the leads. Johns described the program as physically demanding and rigorous but exciting.

"With rep that's not done as often, it feels more like having new choreography set on you, because there's not so much story set behind it," Johns said.

The Tharp excerpt is complicated and rich, featuring less traditional movements. Each dancer interprets characters who represent different elements of time. Tracey said this piece is particularly interesting in the trajectory of Tharp's career. "This was a piece in which she was beginning to explore the classical ballet vocabulary more. You see the girls on pointe, and it feels very Twyla-esque."


Tracey said that they very intentionally selected works by choreographers who were in the main company's repertoire. "We're not staging anything that we wouldn't otherwise present," she said. In this way, it provides a good introduction for dancers who have come from different training backgrounds.

For the dancers in "First Look," working on the shows has been something to look forward to.

"In class sometimes you forget to be a dancer, and then we get to be in rehearsals and remember why I love it," Nevin said.


Featuring Boston Ballet II and select summer dance program students. At Boston Ballet, 19 Clarendon St., Studio 7, July 30. 617-695-6955, www.bostonballet.org

Sophie Haigney can be reached at sophie.haigney@globe.com . Follow her on Twitter at @SophieHaigney.