Boston Ballet’s season opener, “Genius at Play,” celebrates the centennial of Jerome Robbins, who was most certainly a genius and also the greatest choreographer America has produced. The lighthearted program — Robbins’s first two ballets, “Fancy Free” (1944) and “Interplay” (1945), plus the much later “Glass Pieces” (1983) — afforded the company a chance to kick up its heels, and Thursday evening at the Boston Opera House, the dancers did just that.
The evening opened with a nod to the centennial of Leonard Bernstein: a bright, circusy performance of his “Candide” Overture from the Boston Ballet Orchestra under principal guest conductor Beatrice Jona Affron. “Interplay” followed; set to Morton Gould’s 1943 piano concerto “American Concertette,” it’s a playground piece for four men and four ponytailed women who intersperse double tours and chaînés and piqué turns with cartwheels and daisy chains and even a mock minuet. Thursday the men were slow getting into the jazzy, beboppy spirit of the music, but once the women, led by a beaming Seo Hye Han, arrived, they found their groove. Derek Dunn’s solo had the engaging insolence of his Mercutio from last season’s “Romeo + Juliet”; Han was teasingly innocent in her pas de deux with Patrick Yocum. In the finale, they chose up sides for a dance rumble in which everybody got to show off; Robbins even had the men doing fouettés and the women tours à la seconde.
“Fancy Free,” to a Bernstein score, finds three sailors on leave in front of a Manhattan bar during World War II. Two of them run after a pretty girl who’s strolled by; the third invites a second girl in for a drink and they dance a steamy duet. Then his comrades return with the first girl, and there’s a problem: three guys, only two girls. Each sailor competes with a solo; when that doesn’t settle the issue, a fight breaks out and the exasperated girls bolt. The sailors are ready to swear off women until a third girl sashays by and they take off after her.
Thursday the company sent out the same cast it had presented last month in its Tanglewood collaboration with the BSO, and on the bigger Opera House stage, everyone looked more comfortable. Patric Palkens, in the role Robbins created for himself, was half wise guy, half tough guy; Isaac Akiba was half cocky, half goofy, Paul Craig winsomely naive. Akiba did a great split jump off the bar; Craig executed double tours while slaloming between barstools; Palkens was swivel-hipped in his rumba. Yet the standout, as at Tanglewood and in the company’s previous production (2012), was Kathleen Breen Combes’s second girl, half sweet, half smart, alive to every relationship nuance and a good match for Craig in the duet. María Álvarez as the first girl, Dawn Atkins as the third, and Matthew Slattery as the bartender rounded out a fine cast.
“Glass Pieces” amounts to a four-movement symphony (the last two movements run together) set to music by Philip Glass: “Rubric” and “Façades” from “Glassworks” and the “Funeral of Amenhotep III” from the opera “Akhnaten.” Its heart is the slow pas de deux to “Façades,” and though Lia Cirio and Paulo Arrais were lithe and sinuous on Thursday, I found it hard to take my eye off the shadowy backdrop of women shuffling across the stage, their simple, hypnotic steps reminiscent of the finale of Robbins’s “Antique Epigraphs.”
The ballet opens, against a gridlike backdrop, with dancers in rehearsal clothes striding purposefully like Manhattan pedestrians. Three couples parachute in and soon the pedestrians are picking up the couples’ dance moves. Then to the “Akhnaten” excerpt, there’s a scherzo for the men before the women join them for the whirligig of a finale. Robbins doesn’t quite put his stamp on the music, but there’s such joy in the dancing, it doesn’t matter.
“Genius at Play”
“Interplay,” “Fancy Free,” and “Glass Pieces,” by Jerome Robbins. Presented by Boston Ballet. At: Boston Opera House, through Sept. 16. Tickets: $37-$169. 617-695-6955, www.bostonballet.orgJeffrey Gantz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.