Growing up in Goiania, Brazil, Boston Ballet principal dancer Paulo Arrais was surrounded by supportive women: his mother, grandmother, and aunts, plus three sisters. As a gay youth, he had a self-described “tumultuous relationship” with his father, but the women in his life were a constant touchstone. Now he’s paying it forward with a new dance that he hopes will celebrate powerful women and generate conversation about gender inequality in the #MeToo era. Arrais’s “ELA, Rhapsody in Blue,” set to Gershwin’s eponymous score, is getting its world premiere as part of Boston Ballet’s “Rhapsody” program, running May 16 to June 9 at the Citizens Bank Opera House.
“Ela” means “her” in Portuguese, and Arrais’s work features a single central female role amid a cast of 14 men. The work portrays one woman’s experience of overcoming difficult circumstances to defy expectations, and for Arrais, that narrative has very personal roots, referencing the domestic abuse and manipulation he saw normalized in the patriarchal culture of his youth. “Everything I do as an artist comes from a deep place in my heart, and that’s not always a happy place,” he says.
But Arrais says with this ballet, he is able to honor the strong women who continue to inspire him, creating a character who goes through highs and lows, but doesn’t let hardship define her. “In a way, I’m rewriting my own history, and it’s helping me heal,” he says.
Boston Ballet fans know the 31-year-old Arrais as one of the company’s most versatile, dynamic dancers. He started studying dance at the age of 11 in Brazil, leaving home and heading to Europe at the age of 15. He refined his technique at the Paris Opera Ballet School, the English National Ballet School, and the Royal Ballet School before becoming a dancer with the Norwegian National Ballet. In 2009, he joined Alonzo King LINES Ballet to focus on contemporary ballet, which he says inspired him to rethink ballet and discover his own personal style.
Arrais joined Boston Ballet in 2010 as a corps de ballet member, rising through the ranks to principal dancer within two years. In his tenure with the company, he has danced a remarkable range of roles, from classical leads to contemporary solos. However, since 2012, he has also been nurturing his choreographic energy. He was awarded a grant from the New York Choreographic Institute while creating his ballet “Castle,” which premiered in a BB@home program in 2017. “ELA, Rhapsody in Blue” is the first piece he has choreographed for the vast Opera House stage.
“Part of my job is to create the path to the future, cultivating future choreographers,” says Boston Ballet artistic director Mikko Nissinen. “There can be no flowers if you don’t put bulbs in and let them grow. Paulo has proven that he is a very solid choreographer with a lot to say. I like the quality and craftsmanship. And I’m incredibly impressed with how he’s handling the situation with his peers in the studio. It’s not easy.”
Nissinen asked Arrais to create his new work to Gershwin’s popular score, which he had wanted Boston Ballet to feature for many years. The artistic director jumped on board to design costumes as well. “If it takes off royally, it won’t be bad to be part of the ride,” Nissinen says. “I’m excited about the work I’ve seen.”
Boston Ballet resident choreographer Jorma Elo, one of the reasons Arrais was drawn to join the company, adds, “Paulo has been a wonderful dancer to have in the creation process. He seems to embrace the creative moment with great interest, love, and excitement, but what has been obvious in his approach to the creative moments we have had together is his curiosity. I think this is a key element in any choreographer’s development.”
The timing of “ELA, Rhapsody in Blue” has proved to be fortuitous for Arrais. In February, while preparing for the company’s “Wings of Wax” tour to Paris, he tore the patella tendon of his right knee. But while he’s not able to dance during his recovery, he is all in with the creative process of the new work, which is helping him develop and hone his skills as a teacher and coach. “Dance educated me, taught me discipline, devotion, the desire to grow,” he says. “I love coaching. I have so much knowledge, I want to share it with others. . . . This is such a gift.”
During a recent rehearsal, only eight weeks into what may be a yearlong healing process, he moved surprisingly well given a brace that reaches from mid-thigh nearly to his ankle. What he couldn’t demonstrate, he eloquently described as Rachele Buriassi and Michael Ryan navigated the sensual, intricate coupling of the work’s central pas de deux. There was a lovely collaborative give and take between the three as they experimented with positioning, articulation, dynamics. “I’m finding my voice through that pas de deux,” he says.
Inspired by the courage of those in the #MeToo movement, Arrais hopes the female character gets audiences to rethink how disempowered women often feel, the awkwardness and shame society tends to impose on female sexuality. He maintains it’s time for men to step up, and says Buriassi and the other two ballerinas rehearsing the solo role — María Álvarez and Kathleen Breen Combes — are helping him get in touch with his feminine side. “They are teaching me how to be a woman. It’s wonderful, so important in this climate of misogyny.”
He adds, “And if I can make men connect to the character, I’ve done my job.”
At Citizens Bank Opera House, May 16-June 9. Tickets $37-$169. 617-695-6955, www.bostonballet.org