By James Foritano
Sometimes, it seems to me that classical ballet is bending over backwards, awkwardly, to demonstrate to modern audiences that it can be contemporary and convey a modern, democratic spirit with a blueprint conceived for the royal courts of Europe. In their final production of the season, “Mirrors,” the Boston Ballet has indeed seasoned its repertory with more than a whiff of modernity, a crackle of contemporary challenge and even a soupcon of angst.
Four edgy ballets, two of which, “Smoke and Mirrors” and “Bitches Brew,” are specially commissioned world premiers, close out this season along with a concurrently running production of the traditionally classical “Swan Lake.”
I was entertained by the elegance and spirit of three of the four ballets comprising “Mirrors,” but I was especially enthralled and intrigued by the fourth and final piece of this four-course banquet. “Bitches Brew” is a Boston Ballet commissioned world premier by the celebrated choreographer Karole Armitage set to the path-breaking jazz music of Miles Davis.
Somehow, this ballet incorporates a cast of dancers without making them seem too much. To explain that feeling, I have to say that often when I’m watching a whole corps de ballet on stage, along with, it seems, a few of their talented cousins, I’m watching four or five doubles matches all frenetically striving to capture some over-heated tennis tournament’s final prize. I don’t know where to look. I need a referee! I need an intermission!
In glorious contrast to this confusion, the Boston Ballet’s Ji Young Chae, was never, for me, is ever lost in the crowd: sinuous and sinister with her slow, sensuous movements, long black hair, both a liberation and a trap, she was, and is, the chief ‘Bitch’ of this magical ‘Brew.’
When the athletic and artistic virtuosity of a principal dancer is cradled in the vision of a choreographer something transporting happens to which words would be extraneous. It seems to be happening in the back of your mind and while it lasts you are the staging, the costumes, the lighting and you conduct to your own beat.
Sustaining this illusion, if it is an illusion, choreographer Karole Armitage has her troupe of dancers emerge and disappear from a totally black backstage while, center stage, Ji Young Chae’s “Bitch,” whirls and contorts and prances — brew-mistress extraordinaire. Or, egomaniacally, courting dissolution — lone and alone.
Of course there are other solos, other duos and trios, but, acolytes all, they breath as one to Ji Young Chae’s quirky, impassioned moves, a signature style, standing out as if emblazoned upon a weave of virtuosic styles. Is it agony or ecstasy she’s miming, or a pitch of feeling so near the limit for humans it quivers between the two?
It’s a very contemporary feeling we have as audience as we resonate to Chae’s elusive, evocative and, not least, virtuoso posturing; we’ve felt it often in the horn-blasts of disaster sounding in our global village. Or just, to a minor chorus of horns, crossing the hazardous streets of our own next decision. But, like all classics, the choreography and music of “Bitches Brew” reaches towards the past as well as the future for its prophetic, poetic resonances.
I was imagining the Salem Witch Trial judges or even further back to an official Roman divinator trying to explain to his or her fellows the meaning of an eagle flying over the forum or the knotted entrails of a beast for the future of the republic.
Do we cherish this new direction? Do we root it out? Do we wait it out? Or do we act now and, if necessary, apologize later?
A very contemporary ball of questions cultivated by “Bitches Brew” leaves the Boston Opera House with us. Fortunately, we can turn the corner to Tremont Street and satisfy, at least for a while, all our post-ballet questions with a latte and a pastry at the “Thinking Cup’s” delicious dessert resolution.
(Boston Ballet performances of “Mirrors” continue through May 28 at the Boston Opera House, 539 Washington St., Boston, Mass. For more information, call (617) 695-6955.)