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Play with Fire

Boston Ballet Company

Through March 11, 2012

Boston Opera House

A giant lamp with a crown of bulbs turns its head into position. Like an alien saucer it beams down onto the stage, illuminating a single motionless dancer. The dancer moves in a rapid jerking motion. Is it a man or a woman? Suddenly, the sound of Bach’s Goldberg Variations breaks the silence.

Sharper Side of Dark is the first of three dances in Play with Fire, which the Boston Ballet is performing this week. Choreographed by resident choreographer Jorma Elo, Sharper Side of Dark first premiered with the company in 2002. Reworked since then, the piece is an extraordinary showcase of the dancers’ skill.

The four male and four female dancers are dressed in minimalist tight grey clothing; the stage remains bare and the lighting stark throughout, allowing the audience to focus on the performers. The dance itself is transfixing, as it allows the dancers to demonstrate the astounding extent of their capabilities.

In strange contradiction, the dancers seem to embody human perfection, yet simultaneously seem of another species. Lithe and nimble, their every muscle is defined and visible, and their spins are as brisk as a trill of the violins. Yet from the manner in which they manipulate their bodies, they can at times appear insect-like or bird-like or like something else altogether. Some movements are a swift scuttling, others the balletic equivalent of popping and locking, and yet others full-body undulations.

The second dance of Play with Fire is Bella Figura. Choreographed by Jirí Kylián and premiered at Boston Ballet last year, its success has brought it back for this season.

The dance begins before the lights dim, whilst audience members are still taking their seats. Dancers seem to be warming up like an orchestra before a performance. Life-size naked human dolls in glass cases hang askew above the stage, foreshadowing the rest of the dance. Neoclassical in style, it is provocative and creative, and includes partial nudity and fire.

In one part of the dance, a single topless female dancer in a bright red bulbous floor-length skirt dances gracefully on stage. Then a troupe of male and female dancers, all topless and skirted, joins her. In another part, a male dancer lies on his back, his legs extended and moving above him. Nearby, a female dancer is held aloft at the torso by the curtain. She struggles and makes reaching movements, reminiscent of T.S. Eliot’s lines “And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin, / When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall, / Then how should I begin / To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways? / And how should I presume?”

After the somewhat unsettling Bella Figura, the audience is treated to a delightfully lighthearted finale. Male dancers in black dress pants and velvet blazers kick off Christopher Bruce’s Rooster, dancing to eight Rolling Stones classic hits, including Paint it Black, Lady Jane, and Not Fade Away. The choreography requires incredible athleticism, and the dancers soar freely though the air, landing dozens of spins seemingly without effort. The solo dance to Ruby Tuesday in particular stands out among the others, as the dancer owns the stage completely, capturing every audience member’s attention so that each seems to listen more to her movement than to the lyrics of the song.

Play with Fire testifies to the dancers’ incredible strength, grace, and versatility. Just two weeks ago they were in pointe shoes performing for Simply Sublime; this week they are dancing to completely different pieces, and still manage to delight and engage us. Boston Ballet does a fantastic job of impressing upon the audience how exciting, innovative, and perhaps even controversial, modern dance can be. It is quite the education.