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Boston Ballet is off balance but embraced at the Pillow

BECKET -- Boston Ballet's first full program at Jacob's Pillow in 23 years met with a warm reception Wednesday night from an enthusiastic, overflow audience. The festival offered an excellent opportunity for the company to kick-start a concerted effort to gain a higher profile outside the Boston area.

While the program was impressively diverse, it was also uneven, highlighting both the company's estimable strengths and its continuing weaknesses. In tribute to the 100th anniversary of George Balanchine's birth, the company (23 out of the usual complement of 45) presented two of the legendary choreographer's works, the concert version of "Who Cares?" and the unusual "Duo Concertant."

Both works were crisply executed, but the dancers don't seem to have the Balanchine style in their bones. None seemed fully able to revel in the tiny gestural details and quicksilver shifts in dynamics that offset the choreographer's long lines. Both works also seemed a little underrehearsed.

Set to the music of Gershwin, "Who Cares?" was the crowd-pleasing opener, though in this shortened form for only four dancers it is not Balanchine's most memorable or imaginative work. The charismatic Lorna Feijoo had an especially nice turn in the solo set to "My One and Only," with her exquisite line lending breadth and suspension to her pirouettes and arabesques. New principal Carlos Molina (who came to the company from American Ballet Theatre just three weeks ago) was a debonair partner, though this might not have been the best vehicle for a company debut. He's clearly an excellent technician but didn't go far enough in capturing the role's sly insouciance.

Romi Beppu and Jared Redick gave a solid performance of "Duo Concertant," set to the music of Stravinsky (played live by violinist Michael Rosenbloom and pianist Freda Locker).

Despite a false start and some occasionally shaky ensemble work, the company looked stylistically comfortable and vehemently committed in Jorma Elo's propulsive "Plan to B." Commissioned by Boston Ballet and premiering this past season, it is a riveting addition to the company's repertory and was the evening's unquestionable highlight, with the audience exploding into applause and cheers at work's end.

The piece is a model of contrasts. Lit by a large side panel of bright white and set to rather restrained 17th-century violin music (by Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber), the movement is rigorously athletic and ultra-contemporary, with flamboyant leaps that corkscrew in the air, hyperextended limbs thrown in all directions. Jazzy inflections color brilliant shifts in dynamic and direction, imbuing the whole with a kind of exuberant nervous energy.

In dazzling contrast, the Act 1 pas de deux from Val Caniparoli's "Lady of the Camellias" was sweepingly romantic, showcasing the virtuosity of Larissa Ponomarenko, one of the dance world's great dramatic ballerinas. She and Yury Yanowsky gave a breathtaking, impassioned performance as an ailing courtesan and her lover; Ponomarenko's face was radiant with ardor yet tempered by underlying pain and sadness.

The finale, and the largest work on the program, was Mark Morris's "Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes," set to piano etudes by Virgil Thomson (given a superb performance by Virginia Eskin).

Commissioned in 1988 for American Ballet Theatre, this lyrical romp for 12 is one of Morris's most balletic works, but rather uninspired and almost unrelentingly cheery. By this point in the evening, however, some of the dancers were starting to look a bit tired, an impression not helped by the busy work of Morris's choreography.

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