There’s no downside to starting a ballet program with George Balanchine — unless you’re the choreographers who have to follow him. Balanchine’s “Donizetti Variations” was in fact the highlight of the program Boston Ballet opened Thursday at the Opera House, but the two works that came after, Jirí Kylián’s “Wings of Wax” and Alexander Ekman’s “Cacti,” more than held their own.
Balanchine choreographed “Donizetti Variations” in 1960, as a light-hearted opener to an evening, “Salute to Italy,” that celebrated the 100th anniversary of Italian unification. The piece is set to the ballet music from act two of Donizetti’s 1843 opera “Don Sebastian”: a pas de trois, a pas de deux, and a “danse final.” Balanchine cast it for a principal couple plus an ensemble of three men and six women, whose configurations tell a story all their own. August Bournonville’s influence is palpable in the port de bras and the precision of small jumps and beats that Balanchine calls for, but it’s precision with a touch of parody. At one point an ensemble lady steps out and essays an “unauthorized” solo, only to stub her toe and have to retreat.
The opening-night principals, Misa Kuranaga and Junxiong Zhao, were superb. Kuranaga balanced sweet and subversive, every move pristine and delivered with panache. Zhao was dreamily attentive, and he threw off tours à la seconde and multiple pirouettes in passé with ease. He was also convincing when it was his turn to bask in the attention of the six ladies. Nina Matiashvili did well with the comic solo turn; the ensemble was more pleasing than parodic, and that was fine.
“Wings of Wax” (1997) plays out beneath a dead tree hanging upside down from the rafters, with a spotlight in continuous revolution around it. To the Passacaglia violin solo from Biber’s “Rosary Sonatas,” the eight performers create a Baroque formal dance, now serene, now agitated. John Cage’s 50-second “Prelude for Meditation” causes the four ladies to freeze; then to the scherzolike third movement from Philip Glass’s Fifth String Quartet, the men zip about while the ladies stride in slow motion. The finale, to a string-trio arrangement of the Adagio from Bach’s “Goldberg Variations,” brings on the four couples one by one in typically heartbreaking Kylián duets.
How the piece’s Daedalus-and-Icarus title consorts with the upside-down tree is left to the audience’s imagination. But Kylián’s choreography is no mystery, not when his couples entwine in languid, liquid dialogues of freedom and imprisonment, manipulation and mortality. When Boston Ballet first staged “Wings of Wax,” on an all-Kylián program in 2013, it was overshadowed by the more bizarre and eye-catching “Tar and Feathers.” This time, the piece got to spread those wings. Partnered with Paul Craig in the opening duet, Kathleen Breen Combes looked even lither and more sensual than she did dancing the role in 2014. But this company takes to Kylián: The remaining couples — Ashley Ellis with Lawrence Rines, Lia Cirio with John Lam, and Rachele Buriassi with Roddy Doble — were hardly less idiomatic.
“Cacti” (2010), whose American premiere Boston Ballet gave in 2014, is the dessert on the program, a spoof of both postmodern dance and postmodern criticism. As a pretentious offstage voice drones on about “collaboration” (“a world where we’re not dancers, not musicians, but all members of the human orchestra”) and a string quartet roams the stage playing the tarantella finale of Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” Quartet, 16 dancers perform on what look like oversize Scrabble tiles, kneeling and slapping the tiles and their body parts, rising and writhing, running in place, spotlit in solos and duos. Eventually the string quartet leaves and we hear the tarantella as orchestrated by Mahler and Andy Stein, with the dancers air-conducting.
And the title succulents? They’re brought on in the second half of the piece, one cactus for each dancer. The tiles are converted into a sculpture, a long white runway mat is rolled out, the string quartet returns to play Haydn and Beethoven, and two dancers rehearse while we hear their thoughts, which range from “I always forget this part” to “I think we need some distance.” When the man asks, “What about the cat?” a stuffed version falls from the rafters and thuds onstage.
A little of this goes a long way. But Irlan Silva was irrepressible as the dancer who jukes down the runway, and as the rehearsal pair, Craig and Dusty Button made fun of, among other things, Kylián. It was a smart ending to a smart program.
At Boston Opera House, through April 2. Tickets $45-$159. 617-695-6955, www.bostonballet.org