BOSTON — MOST ballet companies lean heavily on a traditional repertory. After all, audiences expect to have their ballet memories reaffirmed and to experience the vicarious weightlessness and ease that classics like "Swan Lake," "Sleeping Beauty," and "Giselle" provide. How can such tiny, fragile-looking dancers be so strong, they wonder.
As modern dance storms the barricades of classical ballet, however, the notion of weightlessness and effortlessness evaporates. Modern dance insists that attention be paid to the body's moving mass, and to the physical necessity of gravity. It reminds us that dance is at base an athletic feat.
The Boston Ballet, with its "On the Edge" festival of new dance, fearlessly tosses its dancers into the thick of modern choreography. The showcase includes pieces by the country's most significant choreographers: Bill T. Jones, Ralph Lemon, Monica Levy, Susan Marshall, Bebe Miller, Elisa Monte, Mark Morris, and Twyla Tharp. The festival continues at the Wang Center for the Performing Arts until April 12.
"On the Edge" unfolds works that are not so far removed from their classical origins that they cannot speak to ballet lovers. Instead, each of the choreographers borrows and blends familiar movements and recombines them in inventive and athletic ways. Their personalities spark and flare in all the pieces. The members of the Boston Ballet, to their immense credit, rise to the challenge of these demanding works.
When it comes to infusing classical ballet with youthful, jazzy energy, Twyla Tharp clearly possesses the superior talent. Her vast experience with dance-making for stage and screen adds an element of classy self-assurance to "In the Upper Room" and "Brief Fling." Ms. Tharp knows how to make ballet work for her. She uses the height and control of classic dance, but keeps the dancers' bodies loose and almost restless.
"Brief Fling" has the good nature to poke fun at tradition-laden ballet. The dancers, costumed in unabashedly goofy plaids, show a springy playfulness and romanticism. Both these works of Tharp's won raves from the audience the two nights I attended.
While the audience responded with less enthusiasm to Mr. Jones's world premiere of "Broken Wedding," I thought the dance shows him at his theatrical best. The choreographer envisions a rich communal event: a marriage ceremony. He builds into the beginning of the dance a greeting ritual that is genuine and full of the relationships of the participants. Jones's choice of music by the Klezmer Conservatory Band is truly inspired. In a melee that reminded me of "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers," dancers leap over and slide under custom-made benches with a rush that left a few of them breathless. One brilliant move involves a row of women diving through their partners' arms as if through keyholes.
"Broken Wedding" combines pantomime - dancers in peasant dress stiffen their arms and legs like dolls - and musical theater. Jones shapes the crowd scenes with an eye for patterns on stage. He injects a sense of ambiguity into the ceremony: Why doesn't the bride go through with it? What role do the celebrants play in disrupting the marriage? At the end, Jones effectively conveys the idea of a giant hall that one moment bustles with music, people, and energy, and the next echoes with silence.
Jones's difficult choreography, or perhaps too much pressure on the dancers, kept "Broken Wedding" from looking like it was under control. It may be that Jones, used to working with his own company, failed to take into account the challenges he was posing for the performers.
The court jester of modern dance, Mark Morris, provided something a little more grim and dour than his usual insouciant fare. "Mort Subite" (Sudden Death) was commissioned by the Boston Ballet in 1986, and it is a tough nut to crack. Mournful music by Francis Poulenc drones on, sobered further by a pipe organ. "Mort Subite" fairly pulses with secrecy and disguise, stealth and suspicion. The dancers assume shapes that could be described as bent tree branches, Christ figures, Poe-like apparitions, or soari ng condors.
The darkness of "Mort Subite" is not the problem. It's just that Mr. Morris has subdued all signs of life. He models the dance closely after classical ballet traditions, and yet the dance lacks a sympathic center that could redeem it - and us. Still, Morris's pieces are never dull, and it is good to catch up with this earlier work. (Another thing Morris has going for him is his insistence on live music to accompany the dancers - the rest of the music in the festival is taped.)
Also worth note is "Paisley Sky," Bebe Miller's bold and indolent trip back into the 1960s with music by the Jimi Hendrix Experience.