Getting Close to Chuck

Boston Ballet is back!

After a fabulous kick-off to the season last fall with their free, one-night-only gig on the Boston Common, followed by a riveting La Bayadère they were on to the silly season (aka, Nutcracker) which I successfully avoided in spite of their massive marketing campaign. Sorry, guys, I love ya, but once is plenty for me for the forseeable future!

The only problem with skipping out on Nut is that the time between October and February seemed an eternity to wait to get my BB fix. Ah, but here we are in the (near) spring with four glorious shows to satisfy those thrills!

First up is a mixed rep evening entitled Close to Chuck after one of the featured pieces. Loving contemporary movement as I do, I couldn’t wait! My La Bayadère companion (one of my fellow adult dancers) joined me again for this one. She has seen far more story ballets in her time and was looking forward to seeing something of a different ilk.

Coincidentally the director of our company/studio, her husband, and another couple we dance with (okay, we dance with the girl and the guy steps in to partner her in shows when needed) were attending the same night, so we were able to catch up and enjoy a pre-show dinner at Back Deck, just down the street. I highly recommend their elderflower margarita, though perhaps not so great if you want to be able to focus for the first third of the show! Whee! As for dinners, my companions all had delicious-looking items, but my choice of the grilled vegetables Provençale was a bit boring for my tastes. Ah well. Can’t win ’em all! A quick plug for subscriber benefits, though… we got us 20% off our bill!

The great thing about the restaurant was its plum location just down the street from the Boston Opera House, allowing us to zip out with 15 minutes before curtain and be comfortably ensconced in our seats before the show began.

Quick aside here about etiquette. Since I have a subscription I have the same seats for each show. But invariably you run into about 10 different ushers all asking to see your ticket and help you find your seat. I can never decide whether to say, “Oh, it’s okay, I know where I’m going, I’m a subscriber” and risk looking like a pompous boob, or play along like I have no idea where I’m going and let them lead me to my seat. Hm…

Back to the show.

First up was the headlining piece: Jorma Elo’s “Close to Chuck” or, more accurately, “C. to C. (Close to Chuck) Reborn.” Although Elo is Boston Ballet’s Resident Choreographer, he originally created the work for American Ballet Theatre. The version we saw is edited from the original (hence the “Reborn” part of the title). From what I gathered through the post-show chat and other things I read, Elo is not one of those choreographers who creates a work and then expects it to exist in perpetuity in exactly the same form as the original, so this was, in fact, heavily edited to make better use of the costumes, to play up the chemistry between the dancers and the pianist (Bruce Levingston, the only pianist who has performed the score), and reflect the unique qualities of BB. Having not seen the original ABT version, I can’t comment on the changes, but I can say that what I saw (influenced as it may have been by the aforementioned elderflower margarita!) was very impressive. I didn’t know much, if anything, about Chuck Close prior to the show. I discovered that he is an artist who experienced a potentially career-ending spinal aneurysm which left him paralyzed. He had to relearn and refine his way of painting in light of this. I could see how the movements reflected this majorly influential experience in his life. There were moments where the dancers moved as if their limbs were foreign objects, difficult to manipulate. But at other times the movement was flowing and natural. The costuming was minimalist: men in black tights only, women in black leotards with sheer panels, no tights. But throughout the piece they would occasionally appear on stage wearing floor-length black skirts. The inside of the skirt revealed pieces of the Chuck Close self-portrait which they would display in various ways throughout the dance. The music was written by Phillip Glass, a well-known composer of a wide variety of works who has a few Golden Globes and Academy Awards on his shelf and who happens to be a friend of Close. As I mentioned above, Bruce Levingston was the pianist, as he was for the original ABT version, appearing stage right with his back to the audience. The set itself was designed by Mr. Close himself (how fascinating must it be to create a set for a ballet whose whole purpose is to honor you?). On the whole this was a fascinating collaboration of visual and performing arts. Truly inspiring.

Here’s BB’s Close to Chuck preview with some back story by Elo and rehearsal scenes (exciting note, just last night I was in that first room they show the dancers rehearsing in… subject for a future post!):

During the brief intermission we got up to stretch our legs, powder our noses, and inspect the wares at the boutique. My pocketbook was safe this show; nothing screamed at me to take it home, though they had some cool stuff on display, including some cool recycled/repurposed tote bags made from the banners they had used throughout the city to promote the Boston Common show. On our way back to our seats I nearly ran headlong into a guy who seemed awfully familiar. Um, hello, Mikko Nissinen. Nice show you’ve got going on here.

Back to our seats for the world premiere of “Resonance,” a piece created by José Martinez, a former Étoile with the Paris Opera Ballet and current director of the Compañia Nacional de Danza in Spain. The curtain opens on to the stage which has been bisected diagonally by what appears to be a wall of some sort. The only light comes from a bright beam coming from the far end of the wall (upstage, stage right) and the ever-powerful Lia Cirio– wearing a gorgeous long, navy blue dress — steps backwards onto the stage in the path of the light.

Throughout the ensuing piece there are ever-shifting elements. The pieces of the original wall are moved around revealing a pianist on stage at one point, then obscuring her again as if by an unseen hand. Until, towards the end of the piece, one section of the set is rotated in the center of the stage by four of the dancers. The costumes change, as well. Lia Cirio and Dusty Button were the lead female dancers. When Dusty first comes on stage she is wearing a leotard in the same blue as Lia, but without the long skirt. At some point the characters switch. The men, too. They are wearing long-sleeved tunics in one part, and then in another they are bare-armed. There are two pianists playing the music, but we only (occasionally) see one of them. In the corps work the soloists would occasionally dance separate and then at times join in the corps. They were dressed similarly, making them blend in seamlessly so that you almost lost track of the lead. The style of dancing struck me as vaguely Balanchine-esque with a modernist-classical feel. I felt that there was a lot of subtle symbolism going on during the piece, but subtlety is not always my strength when it comes to art. I enjoyed the piece, but must say it was the one I felt least inspired by at the end of the evening.

Here’s Martinez speaking about the piece:

After the second intermission came a piece I’ve been dying to see for years, though those who have been attending BB more regularly might be a bit bored with it by now: Jiři Kylián’s “Bella Figura.” This is the third year out of four that BB has featured this work. I’m not sure what has led them to show this so many times. My perverse thought is that they’re hoping the intrigue of partial nudity will help bring in new audience members. Not sure, but it’s a fun theory. There are portions of this piece where women (and men) appear topless. Honestly, though, it’s not terribly interesting. Ballerinas are pretty flat-chested, if you aren’t already aware. So if you were hoping for something titillating, I’m afraid you’re going to be disappointed.

I’m not quite sure what Kylián had in mind with this work, but having seen others by him recently, I think that making the audience uncomfortable is part of his aim, at least in recent decades. Not in an overtly shocking way, but by pushing the boundaries of what we might consider acceptable in the world of ballet. For example, Bella Figura starts while the audience is still milling about during intermission. With the house lights on the curtain suddenly opens to reveal a group of dancers who are going through motions as if marking bits of choreography, preparing for the show. In this way of opening the piece, the audience is already on edge. People have been caught out of their seats, not sitting politely as we are trained to do when the lights flicker the warning to let us know intermission is coming to a close. Even those of us who are seated are cut off abruptly mid-conversation. You’re not sure whether to be embarassed at being “caught” in a theatre faux pas or to be annoyed that Kylián had the nerve to start the piece without fair warning. Alongside that, you can’t help but wonder if there’s been some error. Did some noob backstage open the curtain accidentally? Have we caught the dancers in some private pre-show ritual not meant for our eyes? Oh no!

I’ve noticed a definite movement vocabulary in his works: a kind of balance of very fluid motions juxtaposed by choppy, almost violent motions. The dancers facial expressions and steps have an almost in-your-face quality. If you’ve come to get washed away by pretty, flowy ballet, this is probably not the piece for you. But if you’ve come to feel emotion, you’re in the right place. The music he chose for this (a variety of works from Foss, Pergolesi, Marcello, Vivaldi, and Torelli) has a haunting quality to it. The choreography pulls at the viewer. Towards the beginning the dancers are all traditionally clothed, with the exception of one. A female dancer appears in nude-colored trunks and… that’s it. You feel this sense of vulnerability from her. It’s like that stereotypical nightmare come true… you’ve gone to work and realized only once you got there that you are stark naked. But she seems to not quite notice. It’s as though she’s preoccupied with other thoughts. A black curtain closes shutting off our view of the corps behind her and she and a male dancer (actually, he may have been wearing only nude trunks as well, but somehow his character didn’t stick out as much) are alone at the front of the stage. She steps forward, reaching towards the audience with her mouth open as if trying to tell us something. She steps back to the curtain where she’s wrapped in it from behind, only to come forward again. This process repeats itself. In my mind it was as if she was fighting two urges: one to feel safe, secure, swaddled, while the other was to reach out, allow herself to appear vulnerable and seek whatever it was she was seeking. And so it goes. The emotion is not always so raw. At times there’s an almost playful aspect to it. In one section after the iconic “red skirt” portion (all dancers, men and women alike, dance together wearing billowy, vermillion skirts and — you guessed it — no shirts) the curtain closes almost completely except for a small space in the middle where two women kneel, pulling off their skirts (don’t worry, they still have those nude trunks on) and almost seem to poke and prod one another as if they were two creatures from different planets trying to figure one another out.

At the end, after the curtain closes on the final scene, including two bowls of fire on stage, my companion and I let out a simultaneous sigh. We weren’t quite sure what we had just experienced, but it was emotional and it was deep. And perhaps this is why BB has been keeping it in constant rotation on their playlist.

Here’s their preview of the piece (and yes, there is a tiny glimpse of partial nudity, so viewer beware if you’re bothered by silly stuff like that):

On this particular evening there happened to be a post-show talk in the lobby with Mikko Nissinen (Artistic Director of Boston Ballet) and special guest Bruce Levingston. I love taking advantage of the pre- and post-show chats and learning what I can from the people behind the scenes, whether they be Mikko, the dancers, musicians, students, etc. In case you haven’t noticed, ballet isn’t just about staring at the stage for me. It’s kind of all-consuming. Luckily my companion has a similar dorkish streak and was happy to entertain my suggestion to stay and hear what they had to say. The talk centered primarily on Close to Chuck, the process of translating it from the original ABT production to something that was uniquely Boston, and also the history of how the piece came to be. Hearing the two men talking about it certainly gave me a greater appreciation for what I had seen.

In case you want to learn more, the Boston Globe did a very nice article on this which explains things far better than I could.

And so, that was my experience of getting Close to Chuck. As with nearly all contemporary works, I wish I had the chance to see it twice. I find that in reflecting on what I saw I come up with more questions and a burning desire to see it again and see what answers I can come up with. The show is running through March 2nd, so if you’re in the area I highly recommend you go check it out and see what you come away with!

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One thought on “Getting Close to Chuck

  1. […] there will be a new segment with music by Phillip Glass (the composer who wrote the music for Close to Chuck!) and Ravi Shankar which sounds like an incredibly cool collaboration right there. Can’t […]

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