Maurice Ravel’s “Boléro” is one of the world’s most recognizable pieces of classical music. It received big boosts into popular culture when it was featured in the 1979 film “10,” starring Dudley Moore, Julie Andrews, and Bo Derek, and when Torvill and Dean won the 1984 Olympic gold medal in ice dancing using an abbreviated version of the music, achieving a perfect artistic score from every judge.
Although today it is most commonly programmed as part of a symphonic concert, “Boléro” was commissioned as a ballet and premiered in 1928 in Paris with Bronislava Nijinska as choreographer.
The Joffrey Ballet has just released its own original ballet set to Boléro with choreography by Yoshihisa Arai. It is the first offering by the Joffrey in a year, and was a work in progress before coronavirus restrictions were established. Arai had to change tack in order to comply with safety rules such as physical distancing, and Joffrey’s premiere of the ballet on Friday night was via streaming.
The result is a coronavirus ballet that is not really a coronavirus ballet at all. It is creative, varied, and satisfying even though the dancers do not touch. But it is clearly a visual interpretation of the music and not a comment on the pandemic, although a few close-ups of the principal dancer with her large, flesh-colored mask do make her look more like a bug than the muse Arai wants her to be. Maybe that’s the point: There may be a bug in the air; even so, we can revel in Ravel in a meaningful way.
“Boléro” is a simple, straightforward composition made up of two short melodic lines that are repeated many times, with a gradual crescendo that spans the entire 17 minutes of the piece. The main variation in the music comes from this crescendo and the orchestration. Ravel begins softly with snare drum and flute. As the melodies pass from player to player, section to section, the volume slowly increases and the composer slowly draws in more and more of the orchestra.
Arai is marvelously attuned to the music, and opens with spare, slow movement as a complement to the snare and flute. Over the course of the ballet, Arai mimics the slow building sound with movements that gradually become faster, wider, and more dynamic. The change in expressive movements typically occur at the beginning of a new iteration of the music. It is almost as if Arai has a new dance for each repeat, but that is not exactly what he does. Just as the music has melodies established at the beginning that repeat throughout, Arai draws from a wide palette of movements that form a single and singular vision. His ballet is studded with a variety of styles beyond classical ballet.
Modern dance moves are to be expected in contemporary ballet, but Arai also incorporates arm poses and leg stances reminiscent of South or Southeast Asian traditional dance, sometimes bordering on locking and popping. At other moments he uses sinuous arm movements and occasional hip pushes suggestive of belly dancing.
Beyond that is a moment of pantomime spear chucking or grenade throwing straight out of contemporary Peking opera, and a moment of prancing by the distaff half of the corps de ballet suggestive of a European folk dance. The men have their emphatic moment with some clapping and floor slapping, motifs typical of the recruiting dances of central Europe.
Furthermore Arai’s use of a central soloist surrounded symmetrically by the corps lends itself to some Busby Berkeley moments visible to the virtual audience through overhead camera shots.
Joffrey artist Anais Bueno is the featured dancer. Her moves range from delicately charming to powerfully aggressive, her poses from rooted tree to bird in flight. She is a joy to watch. The corps de ballet do Arai proud, offering both excitement and artistry, as well as showcasing the choreographer’s incredible sense of large-scale balance.
The costumes are simple and effective. Bueno the muse is fitted up with a light color boyfriend shirt with sleeves rolled up over a leotard. The men have kabuki pants (and little more) while the women have long yet abbreviated skirts and large collections of black faux pearls. The London Symphony Orchestra provided the recorded music, and it is performed right at the pace the composer strongly desired.
The Joffrey Ballet’s “Boléro” rewards watchers with top-flight dancing, vivid imagination, and one really catchy piece of music. Bravi!