Boston Ballet, under Finnish artistic director Mikko Nissinen, opened its 2017-18 season Nov. 3 at the Boston Opera House with mixed performance of traditional and contemporary dance. The night also celebrated Finnish work, the 100th anniversary of the country’s independence from Russia occurring later this year. The night opened with an orchestral performance of Finnish composer Jean Sibelius’s “Finlandia,” followed by the North American premiere of Wayne McGregor’s “Obsidian Tear,” set to music by Finnish composer Esa-Pekka Salonen. After that, audiences witnessed the world premiere of “Fifth Symphony of Jean Sibelius,” by Jorma Elo, yet another Finn and Boston Ballet’s resident choreographer.
Co-produced by Boston Ballet and The Royal Ballet, “Obsidian Tear” premiered in London early last year. The title is intentionally ambiguous, as “tear” could refer to ripping or weeping, or both. The dancing itself is just as enigmatic.
The first ten minutes of the all-male piece were set to Salonen’s solo-violin “Lachen Verlernt,” which, translated from German, means Laughing Unlearnt. Only two dancers were present, one in red slacks and one in black, Irlan Silva and Paulo Arrais, respectively. They watched each other perform various solos before joining together in a duet that was both seductive and forceful.
The second section was set to Salonen’s orchestral tone poem “Nyx,” named for the primordial Greek goddess of the night. Seven more men, all dressed in various black designer fashions (mostly non-traditional items such as a kilt and a shirt dress), joined the two on-stage, led by dancer Patrick Yocum. Silva, as the only one in red, struggled to fit in with this new group, spending the next 15 minutes engaging in a series of short dramas, before eventually being pushed off the top of the incline at the back of the stage by Arrais. After presumably killing Silva, Arrais, in the throes of guilt, performed a duet with Yocum before throwing himself off the same incline
While the dancing showed the extremes to which McGregor can push the body, the dancers sometimes appearing more like contortionists, the choreography as a whole was almost too abstract to give much semblance to a story. Most of the dancers seemed to move independently of each other, creating a lack of focus for the audience.
The “Fifth Symphony of Jean Sibelius” was much more reminiscent of the traditional idea of ballet, in both the male-female pairings and the pointe shoes. Coming after the avant-garde “Obsidian Tear,” the piece appeared generic. The dance followed the trend of ambiguity in plot, featuring Ashley Ellis as an outsider running on- and off-stage without interacting with the rest of the ballet corp. Color also played a significant role, with the minimalist background shifting between various hues of pastel colors to match the costumes of the dancers. That being said, the performance seemed to blur into once dance after another, that while intricate and beautiful to watch, was also rather monotonous.
It was a night of experimentation that greatly diverged from previous season openers, such as last year’s glitzy “Le Corsaire.” Though it requires an open mind to understand, “Obsidian Tear” is a great display of McGregor’s intricate choreography and a perfect opposite of Sibelius, leading to a performance that celebrates both romantic and contemporary Finnish music.