Can the 19th century save the Boston Ballet?

One suspends one's disbelief gladly when the curtain, bedecked with a large, Victorian-looking swan insignia, goes up. In fact, one gasps at the hedgehog's-eye-view that unfolds, through a leafy autumnal thicket, of jolly peasants cavorting around a picnic, sheltered by the type of kindly oak that only exists in fairy tales. In the background looms a stately home, and when a scrim is raised and the shrubbery magically disappears, you feel you have moved closer.

A kindly old man dances around with the young girls, who coas him into a polka, earning an affectionate laugh from the audience. Sure, he overdoes the stiffness of age. Sure his gestures of greeting to the Prince are so stereotyped, and he has so much extra gray hair stuck on, that he could be an animated woodchuck in a Disney exhibit. Nonetheless, it's fun to get caught up in the deliriously ambitious sweep of this production.

Who in the audience of Boston Ballet's "Swan Lake" is interested in reality, or even realism? Much better to snuggle back in that newly upholstered, pale-blue seat in the Metropolitan Center you paid $4 to $17 for, and let the fantasy unroll.

The fantasy doesn't unroll that smoothly. Imagine as you might, "Swan Lake" doesn't stay fantastic. You try to fall for all the romance and glamour, but there are snags. Boston's "Swan Lake" is a huge, elaborately romantic set, richly imagined and carried out, draped over dancers who are only human stepping to mixed choreography. The ballet takes off at times with real artistry, only to thud to the ground with soem schmaltzy pantomiming or a dancer unable to stay in the air.

As violins weep and creak, the lake lies frozen in the distance with a suggestion of snow painted into the sky, the Prince toward the mysterious lady in white (Odette, the swan queen), but she signals "no" and floats out on pointe. Her arms undulate fluidly at her sides with a poignant -- desperate, perhaps? -- catch to the wrist as the evil magician, a huge owl, pulls her away with his mysterious power. The music crashes down in a chasm of gloominess. The Prince is bereft. Odette's dancing is more labored than magical tonight and she seems to be chewing gum all the way through his entreaties.

She's not chewing gum, of course. She's panting. Ballerinas often pant in shallow gasps, especially when they're playing swans, so that the exhaustion of dancing on pointe, culminated by those famous 32 fouettes, won't make them gulp air and rock their tutus in an unseemly fashion. The fouettes, a virtuoso series of whip-kick turns, were built into the choreography in 1894 when Prima Ballerina Assoluta Pierina Lengani transferred the trick from "Cinderella," where she had first displayed it. The 19th-century ideals, such as virtuoso dancing, lighter-than-air ballerinas, and princely dancers, lives on in "Swan Lake." People who go see it still count the fouettes. But Marie-Christine Mouis , the new ballerina imported from France, is favoring an ankle, so she goes down suddenly onto a flat foot out of a pose meant to be held on pointe, one leg in the air, as if suspended in the music. She seems winded all the way through, her mouth working frantically for air as if she were dealing with two pieces of Dubble Bubble.

A certain amount of miming to get the story across is necessary in this type of ballet. The mime scenes seem longer than usual in this "Swan Lake." There is a dead stop while the Prince and his mother wave their arms at each other, point to their ring fingers, glare, point to crowns, presumably arguing about the fact that his mother thinks he should get married pretty soon. On stage, courtiers stand around and wait. Audience members hold their programs under the lights at the foot of aisle seats to figure out what's going on.

Just as you decide to return to reality and admit you are seeing the work of your local ballet company, notm a fairy tale unfolding before your eyes, some magic happens. For example, after he gets rid of the old tutor Wolfgang, Prince Siegfried does a chain of dreamlike turns. His legs seem to blur. He slows your eye down with his grace so that you breathe with the violins and go so far as to hope Odette will take him away from all this.

The glorious sets and costumes represent almost two years' work by British designer Julia Trevelyan Oman, who had worked for BBC television and the Royal Ballet. The soaring and halting choreography was done in three weeks by Bruce Wells, the company's new resident choreographer, and Violette Verdy, the new assistant artistic director.

Trevelyan Oman made her own mark on the ballet by changing the setting of the story to the 19th century in what looks like Germany, which coincides with the time it was choreographed, instead of the traditional vaguely medieval setting associated with the ballet.

Costumes play a large part in story ballets. Too large in this one. Except for the swans who appeared in the traditional brief tutus, and the Prince in his white tights, you couldn't see any legs. "There's something wrong with a production that makes the Prince look as if he'd left off his pants, and usually what's wrong is the attempt to dress the ballet in a new period," Arlene Croce remarked in her review of "Swan LAke" in The New Yorker.

In a men's flashy, leaping dance, especially well-leaped by Nicholas Pacana, the men are all dressed in splendid baggy knickered outfits which unfortunately make them look like a pack of squat schoolboys. The wonderful elevation so apparent at close range in the studio is lost against the vast background of the castle ballroom. It is so much larger than human scale that the dancers look as if they'd barely hop clear of the baseboards. The whole ballet has its work cut out for it just to coexist with such an assertive set, let alone get any attention in its own right.

Add to the overwhelming sets the tradion of the original choreography of Petipa and Ivanov done in czarist Russia in 1894 and Tchaikovsky's music. Most important, add the shouts of E. Virginia Williams, and you will have an idea of the cacophony of muses Violette Verdy and Bruce Wells listened to when they made this ballet. E. Virginia Williams founded the Boston Ballet in 1958, and though she hired Wells, Verdy, and, one assumes, Julia Trevelyan Oman, she is not about to hand over the company to anyone. She is still the spiritual mother to all the dancers, most of whom have taken her classes since they were old enough to pull on their own Danskins.

To Laura Young, a charter member of the company, who became a principal dancer at age 12 when the company was called New England Civic Ballet, Virginia Williams is "our director, there's no two ways about it. . . . I would have to say she's my mom, my mentor. She gave me real training and professionalism."

I mention Laura Young's remarks to Miss Williams, who started teaching at the age of 10 and had her first schools during the depression of the 1930s, offering free classes to students whose parents couldn't afford to pay but whose talent needed tending. "Sounds awful," she says, and then smiles. "I was talking to somebody's mother the other day and I said, 'You daughter has seen more of me during her school years than she has of her parents, because she was her from 11 in the morning on, from the time she was a sophomre in high school up to the time she became a professional.'" She doesn't make dancers, she says. "You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make them drink. But you can give them good, fresh water and they'll enjoy drinking." Right now the dancers of the Boston Ballet are drinking from several troughs.

Even though the schedules were marked "Verdy" or "Wells" during those hectic three weeks when the studios echoed with overamplified tapes of "Swan Lake" sounding like music at a roller rink, Miss Williams was always there, sitting on a folding chair, very much involved.

"No!" she yelled one day, as Verdy was getting the bugs out of a tender little solo for Odette, the swan queen, while the corps lined up nearby. "That line is a wobbly as a bunch of drunken sailors!" She cut a sprightly if rotund figure in a short, flowered dress and black strapped high heels as she leaped off her folding chair and into the fray. What are the swans to do when Virginia Williams pelts into the corps, grabbing them by the wrists and moving them to where she wants them, then decides they would look better in a double line? The answer is obvious. Violette Verdy turned around to find them suddenly lined up two by two and said, "All right, Virginia, we can go on, I just have to arrange the swans."

"I already arranged them."

Verdy didn't bat an eye, and on they went. The choreographers were Wells and Verdy, but if Miss Williams pulled your wrist, you moved. This may or may not have proved disorienting to the choreographers. What made "Swan Lake" look so odd from the audience's point of view was not Williams's behind-the-scenes interventions, but the difference between Wells's and Verdy's styles.

Verdy was in charge of the "white acts", the swan-populated Acts I and IV. A former principal dancer with the New York City Ballet, she had been director of the Paris Opera Ballet for a year. Her administrative work seems to come in handy. She seems to be able to discuss everything quite diplomatically with Williams, and she still has produced an Act IV which shows a Balanchinian ability to move a corps beautifully. It stands out from the rest of the ballet.

Bruce Wells's style is different, as is his method of choreography. He would mark the day's dances all out in advance, using different-colored symbols (blue squares, yellow triangles, green circles) in a notebook. To avoid Miss Williams's suggestions, he got a lot of activity organized as soon as he come into the studio. Onstage, too, the ethnic dances the courtiers do are tight and self-contained. What comes across more is his basis commitment to quite literal storytelling.

He too was unperturbed when Miss Williams did things like having him reverse the order of two dancers in a divertissement, which required them to learn the mirror image of their steps in two minutes. He came to the Boston Ballet as a finalist in the now-defunct "Choreographer's Showcase," a program that invited choreographers to set dances on the Boston Ballet for a cash prize. He stayed on, and he has his own plans for his tenure in Boston. "i'm a family-oriented person, and this is a family," he says. "I want to be the father of the Boston Ballet. They've had mothers, but they've never had a daddy before."

Having danced in the New York City Ballet and choreographed for the Connecticut Ballet, Wells is now a hot number on the young choreographer circuit -- "I'm following choo San Goh [a favored young choreographer] everywhere," he says with pride. He has been commissioned to choreograph an original full-evening work on the Australia Ballet. Though he relishes such jaunts, he says he's committed to the Boston company. And to story ballets like "Swan Lake."

"Most of the [young] choreographers are interested in creating contemporary ballet . . . pushing the technique forward into the future. I am not interested in that. I am having greater success with story ballets." This, he says, is why he is so welcome from Boston to Melbourne. "The really commercially satisfying project for a company from a business manager's point of view is a story ballet, because you can sell it. You can't sell something called 'Quasimamada' or 'Variations on a Theme,'" he says.

He's in the right place. James Kittendaugh, the Boston Ballet's business manager, says that the company earns 83 percent of its revenue in ticket sales, an unusually high percentage for any performing-arts organization. "We know how to sell tickets, and in order to do it you need a very strong marketing orientation," he said. Some companies get their support largely from contributors so that the decision of what to dance is at least one remove from what will sell. Kittendaugh doesn't feel that being tied to box-office response to their work is compromising. "There is something satisfying about being paid for dancing as opposed to being paid for being," he says.

Dancing for money gives the company an enviable freedom in these perilous times for arts funding, and brings it closer to what the majority of its audience wants to see. The popular favorites are story ballets such as "Swan Lake" and "The Nutcrcker." Every company uses "The Nutcracker" to its advantage, but it is especially lucrative to the Boston Ballet, bringing in $1,370,000 this year and constituting almsot half of its performances. To look at it in another way, "104,000 people bought tickets," Kittendaugh says, despite a panic in Marketing when the Ice Capades came to town. "Some of your market for 'Nutcracker' is the same market for Ice Capades," he explains.

Funding cuts for the National Endowment for the Arts post less of a problem for the Boston Ballet, even though it has received about as much as the Pennsylvania Ballet in NEW money -- about $100,000 a year. Kittendaught says that "$100,000 is a lot of money, but we're not talking about the apocalypse. We're talking about how can we reshift our giving pattern, can we earn a bit more money next year, how can we make up the difference."

More pressing is the need to replace the $175,000 the ballet took out of cash reserves to pay for last year's world tour. The company made headlines and got a spot in the "People" section of Time magazine when it became the first American ballet company to tour China since the Cultural Revolution. It also danced in Europe and Israel. The 12-week tour cost the company about $350,000, of which it earned about $100,000 by dancing and raised $75,000.

"It was a considerable loss. We use the euphemism 'investment' but it was a loss," Kittendaugh admits. It also suffered a loss of face recently when the Boston Globe reported the board of the Ballet was considering a tour in Africa. The Ballet was criticized for dealing with a country that practices apartheid. Though the board issued a statement that touring there didn't any more signify support of apartheid than touring in China signified support of communism, it quickly dropped those plans.

To expenses abroad, add competition at home. The Metropolitan Center, a 4, 200-seat theater that has just been restored and set up as the home of the Boston Ballet, has booked five very popular national and international ballet companies: London's Royal Ballet, the Netherlands Dance Theater, the Royal Danish Ballet, the New York City Ballet, and the Joffrey Ballet, forcing the Boston Ballet to dance more often next year in smaller theaters, though the Ballet and the Metropolitan have worked out their differences for the following year, and they will get first choice of dates in exchange for the Ballet dancing longer runs. This year, the invasions by toe-shoe could either stimulate dance interest or create a glut on the market. Either way, says Jim Copple, director of public relations, "We've gotta hit 'em with our big ballets," to keep the Boston Ballet in the hearts, minds, and calendars of its constituents.

A glance at the proposed 1981-82 calendar shows big ballets triumphant. The company is performing such full-evening, story ballets as "Giselle," "Gaite Parisienne," "The Sleeping Beauty," and, of course, "Swan Lake" and "The Nutcracker." There are some "repertoire weeks" (selections of smaller, newer works in the company's repertoire) sandwiched in, and some 20th-century American story ballets by Agnes de Mille. But basically, for the Boston Ballet, when the chips are down it's back to the 19th century.

Like Barbara Weisberger of the Pennsylvania Ballet, E. Virginia Williams has seen 17 years of professional ups and downs and tough choices. "The board is saying to me, 'Well, you can have a European tour, you can have an American tour , or you can try to think about building a space or adding new productions or . . . enlarging the orchestra.' I said, 'Well, what do I choose, my head, my hand, or my foot?'" (Whatever else it buys, the company will go to London this summer to dance "Swan Lake" around Rudolf Nureyev as Prince Siegfried.)

After 17 years, E. Virginia Williams still wants the same for her company -- everything. "You want more of everything. You want to have more good dancers. You want to have more weeks of performing for your dancers. You want them to tour and be exposed nationally and internationally wherever ballet is seen. You want to take ballet where no ballet has been seen."

The big ballets, which get all the dancers onstage and most of Boston into the Metropolitan Center, answer some of these demands for more. But as Arlene Croce points out in The New Yorker, they may be leaving out the most important demand -- more and better dancing:

"The Boston Ballet is thinking big these days, and perhaps that's necessary to build community support and to attract funding. As artistic policy, though, it is defensible only so long as big does not mean big and hollow. The dazzling facade provided by Julia Trevelyan Oman did not quite conceal the fact that the company wasn't putting on much of a dancem show. The danger in mounting the big box-office classics is that dancers won't be challenged to improve; they can hide behind a couple of stars, wear costumes, walk around, act a bit, dance now and then -- nothing to strenuous. Technical standards in modern ballet have advanced to a point where "the classics' may actually retard a company's development -- unless, of course, they're done with discipline and style."

That's where Violette Verdy comes in. She feels the dancers learn from big ballets. "This is giving them the Bible. You can read your novels, but go back to the Bible." Verdy, teh daughter of a Breton schoolteacher, says, "I find that the business of dancing, directing, or educating dancers is only the business of education. . . . It is a deeper, more complete education."

Whether it is a novel or the Bible they're working on, you get the feeling, from watching Verdy, that she'll teach the dancers something. Whatever the dance, she's absorbed by it and expects them to be as well. She threw herself into "Swan Lake" with fervor, not only teaching them the ballets secrets ----their roles. At the opposite end of the spectrum, when helping soloists with their abstract roles in the recent Balanchine festival, she told them "to be available. Because if you don't put yourself ahead first with your habits and your usual approach, in those pieces you have a chance to discover a new dimension for yourself."

With her fluffly blond hair pulled back in a ponytail, wearing navy blue plastic shorts (used by dancers for spot reducing) over her pink tights, she is jolly in her pedagogy. She runs up to Donn Edwards, the Prince, who is holding a slightly rigid Laura Young (Odette), in his arms, and says in her husky Breton-accented English, "Good! Yes! That is nice, but I think the feeling is more, 'Well, I am so happy I think I will let myself fall down.'" Laura Young laughs. The swan relaxes.

When faced with a whole chorus of swans, she seems to scatter her fire. She adjusts the wrists of the cygnets while another group poses ever more droopily. When she is contradicted by Miss Williams, she launches into long discussions to justify a certain wingbeat, choreographing on the spot on the eve of the opening , much to the horror of Bruce Wells, who has long ago mapped out his two acts in his notebooks.

As the ballerinas in the rehearsal hall finally gathered themselves and their tutus, got back on their feet after the last and longest afternoon of shifting positions, and wandered out, she said with surprising cheer, "This is domesticity. You have to do the kitchen and bathroom first before you can get to the lovely living room." She has only coos of delight when asked in private what it's like to work with Miss Williams. "I'm blessed. I'm really grateful. . . . Virginia has done what is hardest, because I'll tell you: It's very nice to continue somebody's vision and then maybe to take off on a vision, too, but hardm is to start with nothing. That is more courageous."

Boston Globe dance critic Christine Temin, who has been watching the Boston Ballet for most of her life and writing about it for four years, sees her as part of a leap forward for the company. "I have enormous respect for Violette," she says. "She has a positive, upbeat outlook, but underneath that bubbly exterior she's a very shrewd Frenchwoman."

All I have seen is the bubbly exterior. But I know that when the curtain went up for Act IV, "Swan Lake" finally took off. The moment the swans rushed in, literally rocked by loyalty to their queen and the pull of the evil magician , any reservations I had about the ballet were swept away by their 44 wings. Sometimes they all looked away from the audience to the lake, a leg pointing toward the audience, an arm streched toward the lake, and brought to mind Degas's deliberately off-center views of ballerinas. They massed and had their revenge on the magician, who disappeared in their midst, and it was chilling. The most fantastic part of the ballet is, strangely, the most convincing, because it makes sense as dance. The corps was in unison. The dancers moved --tiful, especially when Odette and the Prince went off in their boat across the lake and the swans folded up on the floor, tucking their heads under their wings.

Act IV almost justified the $150,000 worth of tutus, deerstalker caps, court dresses, castles, and lakes, and more important, it made them recede to the background, where they belonged. The showiness of the production is overwhelming when not much is going on inside those sets. But a few dancers grouped around a good idea made it all come together.

Boston is proud of its Ballet. There is a feeling that this company that went to China and has new direction is on the verge of something big.It is. But only something big in the "domestic" part of the company -- in the corps, the technique, and the training -- will really keep the Boston Ballet dancing. Marketing strategies may keep the audience's eye on the cygnets of Boston when the other companies come to town next year, but they need a shrewd Frenchwoman to give them something to look at.

Next week: the San Fancisco Ballet

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