What will ballet look like in 50 years? Will it have entered a neo-romantic period, where a flowing quality of movement and fleeting states of feeling are seen as revelatory, if not revolutionary?
Or will it be grinding itself through deconstructivism, blowing the body apart joint by joint, stripping ballerinas down to bones and sinew as they stand naked on the stage of the opera house?
Oh, wait. That’s happening now.
To be exact, it happened some 20 years ago, when Nederlands Dans Theater premiered Jiri Kylian’s “Bella Figura” in The Hague. (Bare breasts and angst: so Pina Bausch, so Euro.) The Boston Ballet performed the piece Tuesday night at the Kennedy Center, on a program marking the company’s 50th anniversary. Along with “Bella Figura,” this exceptionally game group of dancers performed the “Rubies” section of Balanchine’s “Jewels” and “D.M.J. 1953-1977,” by Czech choreographer Petr Zuska. Not one of these works is for the reserved artist, the one who holds a little back and trusts the audience’s intuition.
No, what with Kylian’s skin and Zuska’s underpants and Balanchine’s pop-up legs, you could say we saw just about all these dancers had to offer.
I didn’t find an entire evening’s worth of overstatement especially satisfying. This program was a fair expression of the popular state of play in ballet, but a work of subtlety would have been a wise choice to leaven the mix. And though the dancers were in splendid form, none of them stood out as particularly special. That is the consequence of works that objectify the body, emphasizing distorted shapes and fragmentation over individual interpretation.
If moments of grace were few in this program, there was plenty of drama and novelty. The initials in “D.M.J. 1953-1977” refer to Dvorak, Martinu and Janacek, whose music accompanied the work. Boston Ballet pianist Alex Foaksman was the excellent soloist with the Opera House Orchestra. A tense and fractured view of romance, “D.M.J.” felt more melodramatic than when the earthier, unaffected Czech National Theatre Ballet performed it here in 2009. The set design was the chief interest, as black boxes became ramps for sliding down, walls to grapple onto and finally the torturous (and bruising?) quarters where love flamed out in a flurry of roses. I hope an ice bath awaited the dancers at intermission.
The heartily bouncing account of “Rubies” came on a little strong. Even the costumes’ paste jewels were loud as they clackety-clacked with every step. Competing with them, piano soloist Freda Locker rolled out the Stravinsky with gusto. It was left to “Bella Figura” to offer the most complete experience, with its bold costume design, intimate lighting and curtains that draped and enclosed the space in shifting, peekaboo ways. The twin fire pits that materialized at the end, flaming on either side of the stage, were an attractive if baffling touch. Had we slipped into some dungeon of the mind, perhaps?
In his use of the body, Kylian mostly toyed with extremes and unease. Yet a brief moment of subversive elegance lingers in my mind. A man walks beside a woman with his hand gently at her back; she is crouching on all fours, and he appears to be taking her for a walk as if she were his pet. Yet she matches his slow stride with a pantherlike smoothness. They reverse positions; she takes the dominant pose, and the harmonious effect is the same. Why was that such a beautiful passage? Something about the surprise of it and the pleasingly fluid motion. What should have been awkward and even disturbing was neither. That is the power of the human body, artfully deployed, and it had nothing to do with extremes. Unless you count the fact that you had to wait two hours to unearth a real jewel.