Boston Ballet artistic director Mikko Nissinen has long maintained that cultivating ballets by new choreographers is crucial to the art form's development and vitality. With the company's provocative new "Next Generation" program last weekend, Nissinen put his convictions front and center. The program featured three world premieres and one US premiere by choreographers to whom Nissinen gave their first major commissions. And the risk paid off nicely, not just for the art form, but for audiences as well.
Surprisingly, the most effective work on the program was also the smallest, the duet "ein von viel," marking the US debut of Canadian choreographer Sabrina Matthews. Set to selections from Bach's exquisite "Goldberg" Variations (given a stellar performance onstage by pianist Freda Locker), it was commissioned by Nissinen while he was artistic director of Alberta Ballet, and it's a beauty. Friday night, John Lam and James Whiteside were dazzling in Matthews's virtuosic choreography. Matthews matches the clarity of Bach's score while consciously subverting the elegance with bits of "you lookin' at me?" attitude and quirky nuances. Dynamics shift with quicksilver speed, long lines dissolve into squiggles, complemented by playful gestures - feet that paw the ground, hands that cover the face, backward runs. But it's all fairly subtle, cast in phrases of tensile fluidity from which erupt brilliant leaps and turns in vivid asymmetric shapes.
Heather Myers's "Gone Again" has a similar deep musicality. Set to the Andante variations of Schubert's "Death and the Maiden" quartet, it finds impulse and cadence in the music and feeds off the score's elegiac tone. But it is less mournful than wistful, an abstract study in loss, remembrance, and living in the moment. Cast for three couples, it unfolds beneath aging rafters, like an old church, and is grounded in traditional ballet vocabulary, with the women "en pointe."
Yet Myers, a second soloist in Boston Ballet, has managed to say something new and touching with phrases that breathe with lyrical sweep and echo one another. While Romi Beppu and Yury Yanowsky dance with the weight of maturity, Raul Salamanca and Kathleen Breen Combes emerge as the embodiment of youth, with gentle touches that set off motion in one another. They reach into the air, as if to snatch a moment in time.
Resident choreographer Jorma Elo, one of Nissinen's most inspired finds, unveiled his fifth Boston Ballet commission, a large group piece titled "In on Blue." With his distinctively postmodern aesthetic, Elo has contributed some of the company's most intriguing ballets.
"In on Blue" is perhaps the strangest of the bunch - strange, yet utterly compelling. Bathed in blue from floor to ceiling, it evokes an underwater fairy ballet, with the women in tutus and tiaras amid a corps of men cavorting like fish. Ultra-romantic swoons and elegant arabesques knock knees with robotic isolations and awkward crawls, and vivid partnering sends the women cartwheeling upside down or tossed and twirled overhead.
Helen Pickett's "East meets West" fusion was similarly thwarted by the music, which broke the piece into three disparate sections that were visually compelling and beautifully danced, but ultimately never added up.