Boal farewell performance: "Apollo" (excerpt), "Agon",
"West Side Story Suite", "Opus 19"
It felt appropriate that for the final two ballets he performed with NYCB Peter Boal was dressed in gleaming white. For 22 years (or longer, for those who recall his student performances), Boal has been a beacon of classical purity and effortless nobility. The uniquely honorable, universally admired position he attained within the company and the affiliated School of American Ballet were summed up by the sight of him, dancing still with such quietly intense focus and restless intelligence, all in white. Not that Boal's dancing didn't encompass more explosive, extroverted roles (think of "Prodigal Son")—and certainly he ranged far afield from his NYCB image in his forays into contemporary dance. But the scrupulous and modest elegance of his dancing—the aspect that led Jean Pierre Bonnefoux to compare him to Erik Bruhn—came through particularly well in this farewell performance.
The intense affection of the packed house was evident the moment the curtain rose on Boal standing center stage, poised to begin Apollo's second variation. A huge, sustained ovation greeted him, and he let it wash over him before launching into a solo that vividly expressed the sense of surging power that the young, maturing god is experiencing. No longer the gawky young sprout still finding his way, he has been educated and awakened to his destiny by the muses, and Boal's springy, beautifully shaped performance suggested the confidence and questing curiosity Apollo feels at this stage.
Yvonne Borree, as Terpsichore, joined him for their pas de deux, and the occasion brought out more expansiveness than she often displays in her dancing It was hard not to sense that she, and everyone else who performed with Boal during this matinee, was intensely aware of sharing the stage with him one last time. He partnered her with quiet strength, but also thrusting energy. Both dancers displayed a vivid sense of playfulness as they watched each other during the duet's more sprightly exchanges.
The ballet the proceeded to its conclusion, with Jenifer Ringer and Miranda Weese as Polyhymnia and Calliope. One last time, one could appreciate the subtle way Boal handled the moment when he rests his head on the muses' outstretched hands—allowing the tiniest pause after they clap before lowering his head, so that it felt like a spontaneous move, rather than a response to a note in the music. Similarly, when Stravinsky's bracing strings sounded the call from Mount Olympus, he gradually, unemphatically raised his head to listen and react. It was all done with a sophisticated musical awareness, but with a naturalness and calm.
The prolonged ovation at the conclusion of the ballet required Boal to appear twice alone in front of the curtain, after several bows with his muses, and before it was over many in the audience were giving him a standing ovation. ABT performances feature an abundance of flowers, seemingly for every leading dancer in every ballet on the program. NYCB is not big on bouquets, other than for extra-special occasions, but its audiences definitely give the dancers a sense that they are being appreciated by loyal, knowledgeable fans. Certainly many of those standing for Boal's "Apollo" had been watching him over the years and realized the significance of the moment.
This program was not specifically designed for Boal's farewell—unlike Jock Soto's June 19th farewell performance, in which he will dance five roles. But the inclusion of "Agon," in which Boal did not appear, was appropriate. The Sarabande soloist is a role Boal has long performed, and he did it for one last time—with a vibrantly jazzy attack blended with a mature courtliness—earlier in the week. But on this occasion, Benjamin Millepied made his debut in the role, as though to signal ongoing continuity, as dancers vacate roles and others take them on. Millepied fit right into the intricate complexities of the ballet and brought an athletic refinement to his solo
Terese Reichlen wielded her long sleek legs with lazar-like power in her brief sequences with her two attendant men (Amar Ramasar and Andrew Veyette, who managed to soldier on for quite a while after one of his ballet slippers fell off). Her imperious hauteur—she seemed to dismiss them like servants after their introductory trio where she displayed great aplomb in her balances—added an intriguing veneer to her strong, incisive dancing. She seemed to revel in the wonderful, utter strangeness of Agon. Maria Kowroski and Albert Evans delivered a coolly analytical pas de deux, shaping their movements with sculptural fullness.
"West Side Story" has no particular connection to Boal, but this 1995 Jerome Robbins distillation has become such a repertory highlight, sustaining its high level of entertainment value and rambunctious dance power through cast changes, that it is always welcome. As Riff, Damian Woetzel is more of a rough punk than the golden boy/born leader of Nikolaj Hubbe, delivering a particularly no-holds-barred performance. Ringer's slinky sass as Anita is a delight, and Millepied convincingly suggests Tony's sense that he doesn't quite fit in with the gang. But the true glories of the work are in its uninhibited, brilliantly designed ensemble sections, and Robbins' sure hand with subtle but telling theatrical effects. Amid the onrushing bursts of anger, competition, and teenaged heat, there were particularly vivid contributions by Henry Seth, Adam Hendrickson and Daniel Ulbricht.
The generous program—and Boal's brilliant NYCB career—came to a close with Robbins' "Opus 19." Boal has always seemed particularly in touch with the quiet mysteries of this demanding role, originated by Baryshnikov in 1979. He told me in a 2003 interview that he particularly liked performing roles such as "Apollo," "Prodigal Son" and this one, "where you're onstage for so much time that you could lose yourself in the role." Aside from one brief exit halfway through the second of its three movements, the "hero" (or one could say "dreamer," as the ballet used to be subtitled) of "Opus 19" is onstage throughout.
The Prokofiev violin concerto to which it is set has a nervous unease, and includes moments that suggest exoticism and folk dance. This is far form Robbins' most disciplined work, and much of the time you sense what he was trying to do but not quite managing to do in the ballet. Yet its central male role offers a rich physical and dramatic challenge, and Boal has always responded to it beautifully. He creates a hero beset by turmoil, trying to work his way through confusion. He is a seeker, and the mysterious, spiky woman (Wendy Whelan) who appears and vanishes may be what he seeks, or a guide to help him on his way. Boal turns the ballet's ambiguities into virtues, and makes it into a canvas for his imagination. From the moment he first lifts his arms up to the side in the ballet's recurring motif, he is so completely absorbed in his journey that you cannot help become involved. Whelan, who relishes the role's jagged edges, was his alternately pliant and combative counterpart, elusive yet ultimately comforting.
Then it was all over but the cheering—and the bouquets, for what occasion could be more special than this? The audience stood the first time Boal and Whelan came out in front of the curtain, and remained on its feet when the curtain reopened to reveal Boal standing on front of a huge floral display. Each of the ballerinas with whom he had performed on the program came out and presented him with a bouquet and an effusive hug. One by one, the company's male principals came out to greet him, and when Jock Soto arrived, Boal magnanimously led him forward so the two could be saluted side by side. By now, small flowers tossed from the sides stage were accumulating on the stage. Peter Martins delivered his own basket of flowers and congratulations, and then additional company members filled the stage on both sides. In a final, irresistible touch, Boal's wife, former NYC soloist Kelly Cass, led on their three young children. He embraced her and raised his small daughter high above his head, much to her (and the audience's) delight.
A wonderful shower of metallic confetti rained down that somehow created the effect of fireworks, with its sparkling bursts. The audience clearly had no desire for the occasion to end, even after Boal came forward, raised his arms as tough to salute and embrace the audience. He had to do this several times, and the fervor of the ovation did not diminish, until well after the lights came up and it was clear there would be no more.
Boal's choice of when and how to end his performing career truly embodied the concept of going out in style. NYCB's and SAB's loss will now be Pacific Northwest Ballet's gain. He takes over there as artistic director on July 1st. He leaves his audiences with 22 years of richly burnished memories of exemplary performances, and several generations of colleagues and students with a noble role model to recall and emulate. For all of this, we offer our profound gratitude.