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China -- first stop in a new course for the Boston Ballet?

The Boston Ballet, a strong regional company, is off to China today, the first American dance company to appear in China since the Bamboo Curtain descended in 1949. But this extensive tour will strain the resources of the company in money and manpower.

Although some funds have been raised from private individuals and corporations, the US State Department has not lent support to the tour. (It is expected that the State Department will send the Joffrey Ballet to China next year.)

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With only 29 dancers of the Boston Ballet out of a full company of 36, there is little coverage for possible replacements, a potential problem in light of the long distances to be traveled.

This 12-week world tour marks a change in direction for a company that has not gone far from home in the first 16 years of its existence. Last year the company made its first European appearances in Nervi, Italy, but it has yet to make a New York debut. The current tour will also take it to Israel, Algeria, Italy, and France.

Audiences in China will see a company of 29 dancers performing three classical ballets, "La fille mal gardee" (new choreography by Bruce Wells), "Cinderella" (new choreography by Ron Cunningham), and Paul Taylor's "Aureole," a contemporary American abstract work which combines fast shifts of weight with a lyrical skimming through space.

The ballets seen on tour will be performed to taped music rather than full orchestral accompaniment, although the Boston Ballet orchestra under the direction of Michel Sasson is one of the best in the United States.

The Boston Ballet's repertoire includes many works by George Balanchine and Agnes de Mille, as well as productions of "Giselle," "The Sleeping Beauty," and "The Nutcracker." The company has worked hard to develop its own choreographers such as Wells and Cunningham, and has sponsored annual competitions for young choreographers. But in truth the memorable successes have been works by choreographers not associated with the Boston Ballet.

This month's series in Providence, R.I., and Boston were a preview of what audiences in Peking, Shanghai, and Canton will see in early June. The new production of "La fille mal gardee" shows the company at its best in the "toujours gai," peasant dances which characterize this ballet about a boy and a girl in love -- and the formidable obstacle (Mother Simone) between them and the happy- ever-after.

Ron Cunningham plays Mother Simone, an amiable tyrant who wants only the best and the brightest (gold pieces that is) for her and her daughter. She and her counterpart, Thomas (David Drummond), father of the doltish son Alain, are the mainstays of the ballet as they manipulate their children for the sake of their own greed and vanity.

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Donn Edwards as Alain, the overgrown silly who would rather chase butterflies than girls, completes the comic trio. Laura Young as Lise, the daughter, and Nicholas Pacana as Colas, her swain, are convincing in portraying lovers and they have notable technical ability.

But both of these principal dancers are capable of more challenging feats than they have been allowed by the choreographer. Wells has done a good reconstruction of this nearly 200-year-old ballet, but except for the charming maypole dance for the corps de ballet, and the tambourine duet for Lise and Mother Simone, the long array of peasant dances lacks variety.

The other ballet premiered in the May series will not be seen in China but it will be added on the European leg of the tour. Choo San Goh's "Leitmotiv" is an abstract ballet for 11 dancers dressed in silvery, sleek unitards. The choreographer, who was born in Singapore and is now in residence with the Washington Ballet, is considered the next major talent among those creating dances for ballet companies. In "Leitmotiv" he has chosen the lush music of Rachmaninoff's "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini," but he works in surprising opposition to the piece.

On the staccato dramatic passages, instead of quick steps, the rhythm is punched out by gestures, with movement rippling through the torsos in shudders and quivers before extending out into space. The throbbing theme, climax of the music and the ballet, becomes a sensuous pas de deux between Elaine Bauer and Donn Edwards, with the woman acting as both the pursuer and the pursued.

Violette Verdy, former principal dancer with the New York City Ballet and now director of the Paris Opera Ballet, will join the Boston Ballet in September as co-artistic director with E. Virginia Williams, who founded the company.

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