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A revitalized Boston Ballet among local legacies to celebrate

Performances by Dance Collective, Jose Mateo troupe were also standouts

The dance year in Boston ended on a sad note. The Wang Center plans to evict Boston Ballet's "The Nutcracker" next year to bring in the "Radio City Christmas Spectacular" -- the touring, canned-music version, not the one based in New York. Boston Ballet is scrambling to find another space for the holiday favorite, which will be tough. This elaborate "Nutcracker" production was constructed specifically for the Wang Theatre. The Radio City show, on the other hand, was built to travel. On the plus side, the Wang and the FleetBoston Celebrity Series joined forces to bring Russia's Kirov Ballet and Orchestra to Boston for four performances of an all-Fokine program. It was brave not to do one of the reliably popular evening-length classics, and the decision paid off: The show sold out three of its four performances. The choreography was vintage, the dancing revitalized. The success also demonstrated that there is a public for ballet in Boston.

Still, presenters and dance companies are finding it increasingly difficult to book -- and then to fill -- suitable spaces around town. In the case of the Kirov, its exoticism and the fact that so few big classical companies come to Boston helped with the box office. Boston Ballet has a different set of problems: People assume it will always be there, so they don't feel any urgency about attending. Many former fans still cringe when remembering "Dracula," a low point in the company's history, without realizing that it predated the arrival of artistic director Mikko Nissinen. In his year and a half at the helm, Nissinen has transformed the troupe, adding stars including Lorna Feijoo, a Cuban-born principal who joined this year, and her husband, Nelson Madrigal, a soloist Nissinen has now promoted to principal.

The company's spring performances of an all-Balanchine program demonstrated an ability to tackle not just any works by the master, but some of the most devilishly difficult ones, including "Ballo della Regina." The company danced Balanchine works in its fall repertory program, too, along with a brooding piece by the contemporary English choreographer David Dawson. Both Dawson and his work are new to Boston; Nissinen is determined not to rely on revivals. His problem now is getting the word out about the company. There's nothing like a tour with good reviews to make the folks back home appreciate what they've got.

One of Boston Ballet's assets is the Grand Studio on the top floor of its Clarendon Street headquarters. It doubles as a small, informal theater that the company should take advantage of more frequently, to give patrons a much closer relationship with dance than they get at the Wang. The Grand Studio used to be home to a series called "Dance on the Top Floor," which this year relocated to the Robsham Theater at Boston College, where there are better sightlines, more seating, and parking that is but a dream in the South End. If the venue has changed, the intent is the same: to give choreographers both fledgling and experienced an opportunity to show their work in a professional setting. The dances are always a mixed bag, which can be an advantage: The variety in quality helps sharpen viewers' eyes.

More real estate news this year: Green Street Studios in Cambridge, on the verge of having to leave its space, has won a reprieve through 2006, but it's aggressively seeking a new, permanent venue.

The Sanctuary Theatre in Cambridge, where Jose Mateo's Ballet Theatre holds a 41-year lease, represents a real estate victory. Over the past couple of years, the company has gradually transformed the space into a well-equipped little theater where audiences can enjoy ballet in an intimate setting. The fall program, "Undercurrents," showed how well Mateo and his dancers have grown into the space.

"Sanctuary" is a serendipitous name for a church that's been turned into a haven for dance. At the other end of the state is another, older institution: Jacob's Pillow, where the Merce Cunningham Dance Company performed last summer as part of its 50th-anniversary celebration. On the program was one of Cunningham's "Events," which he describes as "like something that could be going on always, and you chance to see this part of it."

A local success story in longevity is the Boston-based Dance Collective, which turned 30 this year. Its aptly titled "Dangling by a Thread" program was a celebration not only of that anniversary, but of the career of Dawn Kramer, who became the last of the founding directors to retire. Her "Walk in Progress," a clever mix of live dance and music with video, showed that Kramer departed at the top of her form, something many dancers aren't willing to do.

One of the saddest events in Boston dance this year was the death of Julie Ince Thompson, at 51. Thompson was one of the finest choreographers ever to grace a Boston stage. Her evening-length tour de force "Tamsen Donner: A Woman's Journey" was a stunning solo in which she sang, spoke, and danced the saga of the heroic pioneer woman. Tragically, "Tamsen Donner" was never properly preserved on film or video.

Thompson was a much-loved figure as teacher, mentor, guiding spirit, and dancer. How fitting that, early in the new year, the performance space at the Dance Complex in Cambridge will be renamed in her honor.

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