From Czech choreographer, a journey through darkness and light
Czech choreographer Jirí Kylián's "Black and White" is a bone-snapping journey on the (mostly) dark side, cracked into five parts and strung together by, of all things, multilayered period ball gowns that in turn skitter across the stage on casters, hover overhead with bell skirts gaping, or "clothe" the dancers themselves.
Thursday night's performance by the Boston Ballet was the first time the show has been staged in its entirety by a company outside of Kylián's Nederlands Dans Theatre, and the whole presentation is the way the work should be seen. Splintering off segments - Boston audiences saw the "Sarabande" and "Falling Angels" in 2005 - takes away the throughline, the sense of a slog through hell and high water to get to the brighter side, a place where artifice redefines sobriety, making it bearable. Indeed, it's that trek that makes "Black and White" more than a panting exercise in permutating steps, the choreographic equivalent of "How many ways can you skin a cat": "How many ways can you - Quick! Don't stop! - manipulate, contort, redirect body parts and still leave the dancer standing?"
Interestingly, the piece Kylián choreographed earliest - the bubbly (literally) "Sechs Tanze" (1986), put to Mozart's Six German Dances - closes the program. The weakest of the lot, it's like a dollop of whipped cream - artificially sweetened - on top of a bitter drink, makes you thankful that Kylián backtracked from this place of ridiculousness over the years. A madcap battle of the sexes, it's just too, too much. The dancers, in powdered wigs, cavort and yank each other's outfits, play antic pattycake, collapse under head bonks. Yet it's important, because chronologically, the ball gowns - the show's leitmotif, its resonance - seem to have originated here.
The other four ballets come in pairs: "No More Play" (1988) followed by "Petite Mort" (1991) opened the program; "Sarabande" (1990) with "Falling Angels" (1989) came next.
"No More Play," to the discordant strains of Anton Webern, features a poufy greenish gown and five dancers in black. It's an etching of a piece - black lines against bright light sometimes carved into checkerboard squares by lighting designer Joop Caboort. It's got a sinister glow: the seamless shape-shifting pedaling legs to belly-to-belly posturing to two women raised like starfish by three men - recalls Pilobolus, with the whimsy burnt to a crisp. Kylián's battle of the sexes begins as a dank, dreary, at times pretentious, war.
And then "Petite Mort" (a French euphemism for orgasm) hits like sun reflecting off metal. Set to Mozart, the piece abounds in sexual innuendo: Six men in goldish briefs brandish fencing foils. In duets for the six couples, men hoist the women by grasping high under both thighs. In a kaleidoscopic grouping, the women alter the stage space as they tilt the black standalone gowns they posed behind, after gliding into position. The dancers get a chance to shine as individuals here: Misa Kuranaga initiates her air-blown suspensions from deep in her core; Larissa Ponomarenko seems to turn her entire self inside out and back again, all while maintaining a fiery blast of opposition in her limbs.
"Sarabande," put to Bach, is a literal scream of a dance, with its six men alternately hollering and shushing as they pound and thump and slither their pants now around their ankles, their shirts now pulled over their heads. Suspended by ropes overhead are six ball gowns, their skirts caverns to be explored. "Falling Angels," to Steve Reich's "Drumming," is an exercise in rhythmic contortions for eight women. The unison and shattered-group movement builds to repetitive crescendos; each time you think the place is going to burst it goes one notch higher. As a whole the dance is a kind of ironic play of opposites: The cadences are predictable, yet the climax a complete surprise.