Landmarks, Boston Ballet pairing up on the Esplanade

Music director Jonathan McPhee conducts a recent rehearsal at the Boston Ballet. Music director Jonathan McPhee conducts a recent rehearsal at the Boston Ballet. (Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff)
By Jeffrey Gantz
Globe Correspondent / August 26, 2011

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Free Tchaikovsky on the Esplanade is a Boston tradition. What would the Fourth of July be without the “1812 Overture’’? But free Tchaikovsky ballet - with dancers and a live orchestra - hasn’t been seen on the Esplanade in decades, if ever.

That’s due to change next Wednesday. Weather permitting, Boston Ballet and the Boston Landmarks Orchestra under Boston Ballet music director Jonathan McPhee will present dance excerpts from “The Nutcracker,’’ “Swan Lake,’’ and “Sleeping Beauty,’’ along with orchestral interludes from those ballets and, as a straight-up orchestral chaser, the kinetic march movement from Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony, the “Pathétique,’’ at the Hatch Shell.

It turns out that Boston Landmarks Orchestra founder Charles Ansbacher, who died last September, had been hoping for this collaboration for some time. “It was actually something that Charles and I had discussed several years ago,’’ McPhee explains. “He said, ‘I’ve always wanted to see Boston Ballet on the Esplanade.’ And we looked at it year after year, but it was so difficult to have both live music and live ballet.

“Then Landmarks got hold of me about seven months ago and said, ‘You know, this was one of Charles’s big dreams, and it was never fulfilled, and is there any way we can make it work?’ So everybody put a lot of thought into how we could leave the orchestra where they are and build a separate stage between the orchestra and the audience, which is a little backwards from the way we normally do things, and we just kept solving problems.’’

That doesn’t mean there aren’t any left. The dancers won’t be able to try out the stage until Wednesday afternoon. And there will hardly be any time for orchestra rehearsals. But the players already know the music, because 80 percent of the Boston Landmarks Orchestra members perform regularly as part of the Boston Ballet Orchestra. McPhee recalls that back when Harry Shapiro - a French-horn player for the BSO who went on to become its assistant personnel manager - was asked to form an orchestra for Boston Ballet, he made one out of the Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra musicians he was using. Then in 2001, when Ansbacher wanted to form the Landmarks Orchestra, he decided it made sense to have musicians who were already playing together, so, McPhee explains, “he basically hired the whole [Boston Ballet] orchestra, lock, stock, and barrel.’’

As for the packed two-hour program, which will start at 7 p.m., it will include the Spanish and Arabian divertissements and the pas de deux for Sugar Plum and her Cavalier from “The Nutcracker,’’ the pas de deux for Siegfried and Odette from “Swan Lake,’’ and the Rose Adagio from “Sleeping Beauty.’’

At a recent rehearsal for the “Nutcracker’’ pas de deux, McPhee and company assistant artistic director Russell Kaiser work on the logistics of getting Whitney Jensen and John Lam on and off stage as well as the niceties of the couple’s fish dive. Jensen’s black rehearsal top and tutu make her look like a Black Swan Sugar Plum, or maybe the Licorice Fairy. If she wore the outfit onstage, it could draw the goth crowd.

“Right, and we could put Aurora in the Puss in Boots costume,’’ McPhee says.

Dancing Aurora on Wednesday will be Boston Ballet principal Misa Kuranaga, and as the young princess who has to balance unsupported on pointe in between being turned in arabesque by each of her suitors, she’ll have quite enough to do without trying to do it dressed as a white cat.

Has she ever danced outdoors?

“Of course, every year at Vail, Colorado, at the International Dance Festival - it’s an outside stage. And we did several outdoor performances during our summer tours of Spain.’’ Which means that the entire company has experience with outdoor performances.

But what about dancing in front of an audience of, say, 7,000? (McPhee, who has conducted the Longwood Symphony Orchestra at the Hatch Shell, estimates there will be at least that many people on Wednesday.)

“Seven thousand? Really? Wow. Uh, probably not.’’

And could wind be a factor when she’s trying to balance on pointe?

“I’ve never felt that it was a problem or putting me off. If anything, it gives you more of a feeling of moving. Let’s say I’m doing ‘La Sylphide’ outside, it actually feels good, because you’re supposed to be dancing in the forest and moving through the air. Unless it’s pouring rain or there’s a storm or something.’’

In that case, of course, the performance would move to the Hynes Convention Center - which, McPhee allows, would be a downer after all the work that’s gone into conceiving and building the stage.

“But the most important thing,’’ he concludes, “is that there’s been a concerted effort by Boston Ballet to reach out to a broader audience. And this seemed like such a worthy thing to do.’’

Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at

BOSTON BALLET AT THE HATCH SHELL Presented by Boston Ballet and the Boston Landmarks Orchestra

At: Hatch Shell, Esplanade (rain venue: Hynes Convention Center), Aug. 31. Free. 617-987-2000 (for weather alerts),,