Reprinted from late editions of yesterday's Globe.
Boston Ballet's "Three Masterpieces" program, which opened Thursday night at the Wang Theatre, begins and ends with two radically different 20th-century classics: George Balanchine's elegantly formal "Concerto Barocco" and Twyla Tharp's exuberant, rowdy "In the Upper Room."
Framed in the middle, however, was the quiet heart of the evening, Antony Tudor's moving one-act ballet "Dark Elegies" in its company premiere. Boston Ballet programmed the 1937 ballet in honor of the late choreographer's centenary. However, Thursday night's gorgeous performance raised the question, "What took so long?" It is a superb addition to the company's repertoire.
Tudor was a master of dramatic storytelling, and "Dark Elegies" is one of the most compelling and powerful works in the British choreographer's canon. Set to Mahler's luminous, heart-wrenching "Kindertotenlieder" ("Songs on the Death of Children"), given an impassioned, mellifluous performance by baritone Philip Lima and the orchestra under Jonathan McPhee, the ballet for 12 dancers portrays a peasant community mourning the loss of children through some unspecified tragedy - we are only privy to the aftermath.
Tudor created his loose narrative through ballet movement that is more naturalistic than stylized, complemented by a rich yet subtly evocative gestural language. Bodies contract in grief, embrace in solace. Arms reach beseechingly to the sky. Hands clench, sometimes in prayer, other times in anger. Parallel wrists rise and dip, as if skimming waves, alluding to the dark, stormy sea on the painted backdrop.
Yet Tudor's expressive vocabulary never seems like mime. It is deftly, seamlessly integrated into phrases that cast the dancers in isolated anguish or bring them together in communal mourning. Heather Myers can't resist cradling a ghost child, and Larissa Ponomarenko tries to bear her grief with ramrod straight posture, flat palms pressed to her sides. Jared Redick interrupts angry kicks and jagged leaps with moments of stillness, arms open wide as if asking why. Toward the end, community comes together in a ritual-like folk dance, hands connecting, heel-toe kicks skewing side-to-side. And by the final tableau, there is a palpable sense of acceptance, the backdrop's blue and pink sky suggesting the light of a new dawn.
This is the first time Boston Ballet has performed Balanchine's 1941 "Concerto Barocco" in almost 20 years, and it's another dazzling addition to the company's current list. Set to Bach's Concerto in D Minor for Two Violins (Michael Rosenbloom and Lisa Crockett were the excellent soloists), it is a visually striking study in constantly shifting patterns for the corps of eight women - lines, spirals, crosses that dissolve and form again. However, its deep musicality demands absolute precision in timing and placement, and though the corps almost caught the charm and insouciance of the work's spirit, it missed that critical technical acuity.
More impressive were soloists Melissa Hough and Romi Beppu. In her partnering with Roman Rykine, Beppu beautifully executed Balanchine's long-lined kicks and crisp, articulate footwork, but also displayed breath and fluidity in arms that flowed as if through water, laid-back extensions, sweeping arabesques, and turns that slowly unfurled like a blossom opening.
Tharp's 1986 "In the Upper Room" is meant to be a thrilling explosion of energy that rides the propulsive drive of a throbbing Philip Glass score. But while Tharp's looser style is somewhat forgiving of discrepancies, Thursday night's performance looked woefully under-rehearsed, with messy ensemble, near-missed lifts and tosses, and at least one flat-out collision. Granted, this brilliant, ambitious 40-minute work is a tour-de-force of stamina, but it should build by the end to a sense of exhilaration, not obvious exhaustion. This one needs more time to settle in.