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On tour: fly, deplane, see sights, curtain up

For Boston Ballet dancers, first stop is Barcelona

Whitney Jensen (center) in Boston Ballet's production of George Balanchine's 'Ballo della Regina' at the Teatro Coliseum in Barcelona this week. The tour stops in six cities over five weeks. Whitney Jensen (center) in Boston Ballet's production of George Balanchine's "Ballo della Regina" at the Teatro Coliseum in Barcelona this week. The tour stops in six cities over five weeks. (Siqui Sanchez / Getty Images for The Boston Globe)
By Laura Bennett
Globe Correspondent / June 13, 2010

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BARCELONA — Jet lag is a ballet dancer’s nemesis: the fog of sleeplessness, the dulled senses, the muscles made sluggish by displaced hours. “Your body after a trans-Atlantic flight is a relative mess,’’ says Mikko Nissinen, artistic director of Boston Ballet. Dancer Boyko Dossev adds, “Even if your head feels fine, your body still takes days to adjust.’’

But as the company begins its summer tour of Spain, “adapting and adjusting are the name of the game,’’ Nissinen says.

The tour spans five weeks, six cities, and 22 performances of two programs: the neoclassical “Ultimate Balanchine’’ and the more contemporary “Made in Boston.’’ Though Boston Ballet traveled through Spain in 2007, the first stop on the current tour, Barcelona, is new to the company. And each city means a different stage to be navigated, lights to be rigged, sound cues to be recalibrated. Boston Ballet arrived here last Saturday. Opening night was Tuesday.

Just after 1 p.m. on Monday, principal dancers Kathleen Breen Combes and Yury Yanowsky are slouched on red velvet sofas in the lobby of the Hotel Cristal Palace. Soloist Rie Ichikawa peers at a map.

“I want to get a cellphone so my mom can reach me,’’ Breen Combes says.

“I want to see the city,’’ Ichikawa announces, stifling a demure yawn.

John Lam, another soloist, wanders in, a black fedora tipped low over his eyes. He sinks into the couch and stares dully ahead.

“You just wake up?’’ Breen Combes asks.

“Yeaaaah. Had breakfast, then took a nap.’’

I need to take a nap,’’ Ichikawa says, to murmurs of agreement all around.

Less than 72 hours ago they were over the Atlantic, calves swaddled in compression tights, alternating fitful sleep with foot extensions and ankle circles. Once in a while a dancer hoisted a leg up toward the overhead storage bins to stretch. “The other passengers thought we were nuts,’’ says Mickey Cassella, the company’s director of physical therapy. “But sitting down for that many hours is not good for dancers.’’

They arrived at the hotel close to noon, or 6 a.m. Boston time. The rooms weren’t ready yet. Groggily, everyone stored their bags and drifted outside. “We were like fussy children,’’ says principal dancer James Whiteside. Breen Combes and Yanowsky meandered off in search of tapas and sangria. Whiteside and a few others went to the beach. The dancers spent Sunday taking sightseeing bus tours and trying to get some rest.

“I heard the stage is kind of a joke,’’ Lam says in the hotel lobby, drumming his fingers on the arm of a sofa. The others’ eyes widen.

“Really?’’

“Uh oh.’’

“Are we taking class onstage, too?’’

“Yep.’’

The venue is the Teatro Coliseum, which presides over one of Barcelona’s major streets. Domed and statuesque, with gold-leafed banisters and stone pillars standing sentry at the entrance, it cuts a regal figure. But the stage?

“It’s smaller than what we’re used to,’’ Lam explains.

Boston Ballet’s home stage at the Opera House is about 50 feet wide and 40 deep, with considerable backstage area. The Coliseum, a converted movie theater, is more cramped. The backstage is a dense labyrinth of hot, crowded halls. The wings are narrow.

“Welcoming to touring,’’ Nissinen says, leaning back in his seat and sighing as the company files onstage. “You adapt to spaces. You make the best out of it.’’

At the first rehearsal, barres are assembled and the dancers arrange themselves in rows.

“I didn’t sleep at all last night,’’ says one ballerina in sweatpants and a hoodie.

“Me either,’’ another replies.

But when the piano player begins, everyone is silent, arms up, toes precisely pointed, eyes fixed.

After class comes dress rehearsal. The opening work, Balanchine’s “Ballo della Regina,’’ is a vibrant display featuring 18 dancers. Whiteside and Misa Kuranaga, another principal, dance the lead roles.

“The wings are tight,’’ Whiteside says. “When you leave the stage, it’s like, Whoa, there’s a wall there.’’

The final piece, Jorma Elo’s “Brake the Eyes,’’ also has a big cast, 10 people.

“The exits need the most work,’’ Nissinen declares.

Suddenly there’s commotion — a blur of gauzy hems and wayward limbs — and a dancer is on the ground, clutching her ankle. A physical therapist ushers her backstage to get ice.

“First rehearsal, first one down,’’ Nissinen says, throwing up his hands in mock defeat. “That’s touring for you.’’

Countless logistics must be coordinated for a company tour: visas, wardrobes, flights, hotels. “We may not be invading Iraq, but this is quite a mobilization,’’ Nissinen says. Forty-five dancers and 20 crew members are traveling with the company, including tech and costume staff. And of course, each theater presents new issues. “I was thinking of taking the walls down on this stage,’’ Nissinen jokes. “They wouldn’t let me.’’

“Logistics for this tour have been tremendously challenging,’’ Kirsten Hwang, company manager, acknowledges. When one venue fell through, the scheduling of several other tour stops had to be reshuffled. Two days before the whole company was supposed to board an airplane, Hwang got a call. Their hotel in Barcelona was flooded. Fortunately, a backup hotel was on hand with rooms booked for all of them.

“Everything about touring,’’ Hwang says, “means you have to be ready to go with the flow.’’

At the final rehearsals before opening night, Nissinen paces like a drill sergeant. “Stretch the front hip,’’ he calls out over the collective rustle of feet on the stage floor.

Plié to the side. Plié to the back. One and two and three.

By 8:15 p.m., the Teatro Coliseum’s lobby is beginning to buzz. A crowd clogs the sidewalk outside. The marquee glows with the words “BOSTON BALLET’’ boldly illuminated.

“Oh, wow,’’ principal dancer Melissa Hough says. “There are people here.’’

Backstage is pandemonium. Ballerinas with rouged cheeks and varnished hair careen up and down the stairs. The dressing rooms, cluttered with discarded leotards and hairspray and makeup, feel airless. Stagehands fan themselves with clipboards.

“Thirty-minute call!’’ someone yells.

When the curtain goes up, the room is rapt. “Ballo della Regina’’ begins; Whiteside and Kuranaga make their buoyant entrances. Yanowsky and Breen Combes dance an electric pas de deux in “Tsukiyo.’’ Hough is sharp and haunting in “Brake the Eyes.’’ The exits are a perfect illusion of ease and grace: limbs artfully tucked as dancers reach the wings, leaps abbreviated at just the right moment.

As the curtain descends, the applause is wild. Someone even whistles and hoots.

“God, what a relief,’’ Breen Combes says afterward, looking out at the sea of emptied seats. “You could feel the energy in here tonight.’’ She exhales slowly and smiles.

Nissinen walks by and clasps her shoulder. “That was beautiful,’’ he says.

Now other logistics must be dealt with: Breen Combes and Yanowsky are getting married on July 9, the day after their last tour performance. “Yury is in charge of the DJ, and we don’t have one yet,’’ she says. “These things fall into place.’’

Outside in the warm night, the dancers mingle with audience members.

“Some lady wants to take a bunch of us to dinner,’’ Whiteside tells Breen Combes.

“Who?’’

He shrugs. “A fan.’’

“Spanish audiences are great,’’ she says, and they’re off.

Tomorrow will be the same: company class, dress rehearsal, tweaking spacing issues, performing for a packed house. But first there is sangria to drink, salsa to dance. And then, sleep.

Laura Bennett can be reached at bennett.laura.ann@gmail.com.