Boston Ballet - Genius at Play Review

September 20, 2018 | By Catherine Titcomb

Each new generation of art challenges the conventions of the former, though ballet remains an artform rooted in tradition. “The Nutcracker” hails from the 1800’s, but still remains one of the most well-known ballets. Much like a play, “Swan Lake,” “La Bayadere,” and other long-standing popular ballets depend on plot, costume, stage decoration, and character development. However, Jerome Robbins, the Tony Award-winning choreographer behind Broadway hits such as “West Side Story” and “Fiddler on the Roof,” proved through his original ballets that dance does not need plot and can be just as innovative, light hearted, and fun as modern dance and hip-hop. For his centennial celebration, the Boston Ballet Company paid homage to his countless contributions to dance, film, and Broadway by performing three of his compositions to the tunes of his lifelong collaborator, Leonard Bernstein, in the production “Genius at Play”.


Courtesy of Gene Schiavone/Boston Ballet

The show began with one of Bernstein’s overtures, then shifted into the first dance of three, “Interplay,” which challenged the audience’s preconceptions of ballet immediately. The only set piece was a simple blue backdrop, and the only costuming was solid colored tee shirts and dresses. Even for one familiar with Robbins’ works and ideas, the lack of elements many deem traditional or even essential to ballet is jarring, especially within the opulent Boston Opera House.


Trying to figure out meaning or storyline to the dance was futile; the leapfrogging dancers eliciting laughter from the audience were simply just dancers dancing. One of Robbins’ earlier works, “Interplay” seems to explore how far he could remove plot from ballet and focus on the act of dancing itself. At certain times, mini storylines emerge, but no overarching theme or plot can be discerned.


After “Interplay,” “Fancy Free” stood in contrast. Robbins’ first composition, and the inspiration for the Broadway show “On the Town,” followed a plot complete with costumes and a set, but still remains far removed from traditional ballets. The story of three sailors looking for a drink and women is a purely American theme. The cartoonish movements and orchestral sound effects contrast the regality and emotion of other ballets. Robbins seemed to have two motives in presenting this dance: to show others that good ballet can arise out of the United States, and to appeal to an American audience more than other ballets. “Fancy Free” acted as a reprieve between “Interplay” and “Glass Pieces,” which are clearly linked. The plot-based, humorous dance allowed the audience to see the similarities between the pieces surrounding it, but also have them remain distinct.


The third and final dance, “Glass Pieces,” featured dancers in solid colors set against an off-white grid background, and, similar to “Interplay,” it created a paint on canvas effect that was a treat to the eye. Many dancers walked across the stage like pedestrians on a busy street and seamlessly transitioned to a few pairs of dancers in matching colors, each involved in their own duet. The cycle between crowded stage and duets continued. The dance was a clear return to Robbins’ idea of dancers dancing with no storyline.


The next part of the dance opened with a dark blue background and dancers in the shadows, creating a paranormal-like environment. A classical duet in the light brought to mind a futuristic “Swan Lake.” The dance truly was about enjoying the human body and what it can do, “the magic of movement,” in Robbins’ words. This makes the lithe principal dancer perfect for the dance, as watching the uniqueness of her body and its movements was breathtaking and encapsulated by an audience member’s exclamation, “That was incredible!” as the dance came to a close.


The final scene of “Glass Pieces” re-explored the dance-off and other interactions between dancers from “Interplay.” The piece represented the accomplishment of the idea Robbins first explored in “Interplay.” Rather than seeming juvenile and funny, it was a beautiful yet lighthearted exploration of the idea. “Glass Pieces” was composed towards the end of Robbins’ career and shows how much he developed. “Interplay” explores a vital idea: what are the parameters within which ballet can exist? “Glass Pieces” is the masterful realization of this question, so much so that it can be seen as the dancers of “Interplay” all grown up.


Overall, “Genius at Play” presented an expanded definition of ballet and was simply an aesthetic treat, making it an overall captivating performance.