In Ballets Russes, celebrating the power to move

Melanie Atkins wraps herself around Yury Yanowsky during a rehearsal of ''Prodigal Son.'' Melanie Atkins wraps herself around Yury Yanowsky during a rehearsal of ''Prodigal Son.'' (Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff)
By Thea Singer
Globe Correspondent / May 16, 2009
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The best of the Boston Ballet performance of Diaghilev's Ballets Russes Centennial Celebration leaves an indelible mark on your brain and a twist in your heart. Of the four pieces on the program, three spring direct - well, as direct as reconstructions can be - from the remarkable collaborations of some of the avant-garde choreographers, composers, and designers that Russian impresario Serge Diaghilev brought together between 1909 and 1929. Together these artists - including Igor Stravinsky, Vaslav Nijinsky, Pablo Picasso, Leonide Massine, Michel Fokine, George Balanchine, and Leon Bakst - blew the fourth wall of ballet wide open.

Which is why they can still reach so deep inside us today. We owe a huge debt to Boston Ballet for bringing these three works - Balanchine's "Prodigal Son" (1929), Fokine's "Le Spectre de la Rose" (1911), and Nijinsky's "Afternoon of a Faun" (1912) - to life with such sensitivity and brio. They are, quite literally, moving history.

And oh, they do so still have the ability to move. "Prodigal Son," to a sweeping Prokofiev score, tells the biblical tale of a son who, in defiance of his father, travels into the world only to lose his fortune - and soul - and return home a beggar. Thursday night Yury Yanowsky played the Son to Melanie Atkins's Siren - the temptress in tiny skirt and long velvet train who seduces the boy, and with the help of nine bald Goons, shakes him down for all he's worth. Yanowsky's nuanced acting and powerful, linear dancing - crackling leaps and reverberating fists on thighs, joyful carousing and agonized crawls - show a boy full of naïve longing transformed into a broken, penitent man. Atkins is wily as a snake and sharp as a dagger to the heart, her splayed hand rising repeatedly above her head like a crowning sun. Balanchine's dissonant-yet-sublimely-musical steps and gestures - the Goons, in pairs, shift side to side in opposition - still clang with innovation after all these years. And Arthur Leeth, as the bearded father with distant gaze, embraces the Son in the end with impeccable timing, wrapping his giant cloak around the boy with cautious restraint.

"Afternoon of a Faun," to Claude Debussy, cracks open a window you didn't know was there. It is strange and beautiful, from its set of raised rock and Bakst backdrop of orange and brown washes to its eerie, erotic movement. Roman Rykine, replete with horns and tail, masters Nijinsky's two-dimensionality - shoulders angled front but hips and legs straight ahead - with seeming ease: He's a character on a Greek vase, but with blood thumping in his veins. Nijinsky's movement here originates in the pelvis and travels outward, culminating in hands as flattened hoofs. When Rykine brushes a foot - flat to the ground - and then follows through with it flexed, it's as if he's never walked any other way. Lorna Feijóo, as the lead nymph, with arms as taut as arrows, graces the Faun with a dance, her scarf a fluttering come-on. The fabled ending of the dance is subtle, but clear.

Subtle too are Nelson Madrigal and Erica Cornejo, in "Le Spectre de la Rose," to music by Carl Maria von Weber. Madrigal, as the rose come to life in Cornejo's dream, moves continuously on Fokine's choreographic thread, from stretching to vigorous leaps. Cornejo stays delicately somnambulant throughout their duet.

The one new effort, Jorma Elo's take on "Le Sacre du Printemps" ("The Rite of Spring"), the original of which, made by Nijinsky, set off riots at its premiere in Paris, in 1913, just can't measure up, despite the ensemble's dance-till-you-drop commitment to Elo's nonstop steps set to the crashing Stravinsky score. With a horizontal line of fire (gimmicky) backing the intense action - jutting heads and hands clamped on mouths, wild spinning groups and domino-like descents to the floor - the piece hints at meaning but never delivers.


At: Citi Performing Arts Center Wang Theatre, Thursday night (through tomorrow)

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