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2009: The year in dance

Milestones and memories
By MARCIA B. SIEGEL  |  December 22, 2009

MERCE Jacob’s Pillow brought us a revival of his stunning 1975 Sounddance.

You could say there were two tremendous forces that propelled dance into the world of modern culture: the BALLETS RUSSES of Serge Diaghilev and the choreography of MERCE CUNNINGHAM. We marked the passage of both in 2009. Numerous tributes surrounded the 100th anniversary of the Ballets Russes' first performance in Paris — May 18, 1909 — and the death of Cunningham at age 90 in July.

To commemorate the Ballets Russes in Boston last spring, the HARVARD UNIVERSITY THEATER COLLECTION mounted an exhibition drawn from its extensive holdings of scenic and costume designs, manuscripts, photographs, and other materials. HTC curator Frederic Woodbridge Wilson put the show together, along with a three-day symposium of research and commentary. At BOSTON UNIVERSITY, Peter Rand coordinated a cluster of events that included concerts, exhibitions, and a three-day academic conference organized by noted dance historian Lynn Garafola. In connection with both events, students and professional choreographers staged revivals and new works based on the Diaghilev repertory.

After Diaghilev's death in 1929, the incomparable dancers and choreographers who created a catalogue of landmark Ballets Russes ballets went on to enrich the repertory and influence their colleagues for the rest of the 20th century. BOSTON BALLET's dedicated stagings of George Balanchine's choreography solidly tie that company to the neo-classical tradition established by Balanchine and Bronislava Nijinska when they worked for Diaghilev. In 2009, Boston Ballet staged Balanchine's evening-length 1967 triptych Jewels. To commemorate the Diaghilev years, the company presented a convincing revival of Balanchine's 1929 Prodigal Son, as well as Vaslav Nijinsky's scandalous 1912 Afternoon of a Faun and Michel Fokine's Spectre de la Rose, from 1911.

Boston Ballet artistic director Mikko Nissinen takes pride in fostering the work of emerging choreographers, and as part of the Diaghilev evening, the company offered a new Sacre du Printemps by resident choreographer Jorma Elo. A plotless work that used Igor Stravinsky's score, it reimagined Nijinsky's scandalous 1913 original in contemporary-dance terms.

Boston Ballet's repertory spans the entire spectrum of ballet history. Just before the Diaghilev-tribute program, the company ratified its classical credentials with a wonderful production of Sleeping Beauty, a pinnacle of 19th-century ballet achievement. In the fall, installed in its new home at the Opera House, it gave an elegant account of another 19th-century showpiece, the grand pas from Paquita.

The MERCE CUNNINGHAM DANCE COMPANY hasn't had a Boston season in 30 years. (Note to presenters: the company will go out of business in 2011, so there's still time.) But the master's presence was felt in direct as well as indirect ways. Jacob's Pillow brought the Cunningham company to the Berkshires for a week in July, with a revival of his stunning 1975 Sounddance and two more-recent pieces. The season was shadowed by the choreographer's declining health; he passed away the night the Pillow performances ended.

A major source of Cunningham's genius was his ability to trust other artists and technologies as his co-creators. He said he could access many more possibilities when he didn't rely solely on his own imagination. Eventually he used film and video, computer software, and motion capture as dancemaking tools. At the MIT Museum in April, the BOSTON CYBERARTS FESTIVAL showed four installations and two live performances based on Cunningham's dance-gambit Loops.

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