The days are packed with energy and deadlines at the Boston Ballet’s South End home on Clarendon Street where the troupe is preparing the opening of its 59th season. First up is “My Obsession,” Oct. 6-16, a mixed bill of four works, intended to propel Opera House audiences through 100 years of dance history, from George Balanchine’s “Apollo,” score by Igor Stravinsky (1928), to Stephen Galloway’s “DEVIL’S/eye” (2022), set to music by The Rolling Stones.
As if that’s not ambitious enough, the company is also rehearsing the Nov. 3-13 program, “As Anticipated,” a full evening’s worth of ballets by William Forsythe, the BB’s guest choreographer. The program includes a world premiere, “Defile,” for a cast of 30 dancers. Galloway and Forsythe are in residence to coach the multiple casts of their works.
The company now numbers 63 dancers, 55 in the main troupe with another eight dancers in BBII. Five newcomers have joined the ranks which include performers from 14 different countries. According to a company representative, "40% of the dancers self-identify as a person of color." This blending of performers is a major change for Boston from the company of earlier years that is now mirrored throughout the ballet world.
Born in Armenia, principal dancer Tigran Mkrtchyan came to Boston in 2019, after 10 years with the Zurich Ballet, just before the pandemic closed down the company. He quarantined for the first few months, traveled home to Armenia for the summer, then returned for the 2020-21 season when the company performed on Zoom. This season he will be dancing the lead in “Apollo” for the first time and appear in two of the Forsythe ballets. “I worked often with Mr. Forsythe in Zurich. The new ballet is very dynamic, very graphic in a contemporary way, but with a lot of classical ballet,” he says.
Former BB principal Jeffrey Cirio is newly back in Boston after several years away at American Ballet Theatre and English National Ballet where he performed the leading roles for many programs. His sister, Lia, the veteran principal dancer of the troupe which she joined in 2004, says “It’s hard for me to believe that I am the senior dancer in the company because I feel like I am still learning and growing.”
In the weeks leading up to opening night, both Cirios and Mkrtchyan had long daily schedules, starting with company class. While watching rehearsals at the Boston Ballet studio in late September, I saw them and the other dancers hurry from one studio to another as they fit in rehearsals for the many ballets they will be performing. Jeffrey Cirio will alternate in the title role of “Apollo,” and appear in Balanchine’s “Allegro Brilliante.” Lia is cast as Terpsichore, the muse of dance in “Apollo,” also in “Brilliante” and the Galloway piece. In addition, they are helping Forsythe shape his new work. “We are working with him every day on different phrases for ‘Defile,’” Lia says. The new work is not yet finished, “It will be on opening night, for sure,” she promises.
Lia also helped Galloway develop “DEVIL’S/eye” back in 2019 when the ballet was on the docket for later that season—before the pandemic closed the company. “Mikko [Nissinen] has built an amazing repertory for us. All the ballets are so thought-provoking and make the audiences love dance so much,” she says.
The season planned by Mikko Nissinen, the BB artistic director since 2001, includes the 19th-century classics as well as the ballets new to the company. The venerable production of “The Nutcracker” will open on Thanksgiving weekend and run through the month of December, with huge numbers of children from the BB school onstage. After a breather for the dancers in January 2023, they go back into rehearsal for Rudolf Nureyev’s production of “Don Quixote,” March 16-26. Another mixed bill follows in April, “Our Journey,” with a world premiere by Dutch choreographer Nanine Linning, making her American debut, and New York City Ballet’s resident choreographer Justin Peck’s “Everywhere We Go.” A versatile dance maker, Peck has been widely praised for his choreography for Steven Spielberg’s recent film version of “West Side Story.”
The season ends with the beloved 19th-century war horse “The Sleeping Beauty,” May 25-June 4. “We present the classics on a four-year cycle. It’s time for ‘The Sleeping Beauty.’ We want to keep alive the traditional ballets but we need to build audiences to bring them back to the theater after COVID. [Besides the familiar ballets], we do sell tickets for the mixed bill programs. If we did not, we would not present them,” Nissinen says.
Although the company traveled to the Hollywood Bowl last April to make a film with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and performed in Sun Valley, Idaho in June, there are no tours planned for the coming year. “We did not know if we’d have to cancel because of the pandemic,” he says. “It’s too risky this year to plan to travel. We are in conversations about an international tour, perhaps in 2024.”
“We survived tough times. We kept our dancers together on 30-week contracts during the COVID year and last season, our first season back live, we did not have to cancel a single performance due to the pandemic but the world is different now,” Nissinen says. “Because of COVID, Black Lives Matter and the war in the Ukraine, it’s the place for a new book.”