REVIEW: Boston Ballet’s Weird and Wonderful “Wings of Wax” Program

"Cacti." Photo © Rosalie O'Connor

By Landry Harlan
BU News Service

In “Cacti,” the third and final portion of Boston Ballet’s “Wings of Wax” program, a stuffed cat falls from the ceiling onto the stage. It is just one of the many weird and wonderful elements of the triptych of pieces that also feature a seemingly off-script solo, a dead tree hung upside-down and yes, dozens of cacti. For those who picture the ballet as uptight, traditional re-hashings of “The Nutcracker,” let “Wings of Wax” be your gateway drug.

A live orchestra breathed life into the repetitive, but delightfully dressed and choreographed opening piece, George Balanchine’s “Donizetti Variations.” Balanchino choreographed the piece in 1960 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Italian reunification. Principal dancers Misa Kuranaga and Junxiong Zhao are clearly having fun, flowing through the pirouettes, bends and falls adorned in aquamarine, pink and wide smiles. Though the most old-fashioned piece of the evening, Balanchino allows moments of surprise humor, like when a woman from the ensemble sneaks a solo, but stubs her toe. It is the most relatable moment of the program.

The titular piece, “Wings of Wax,” like its name, is heavy and labored. It draws inspiration from the Icarus myth, involving wax wings and flying too close to the sun, a bad combo. In the piece, a gnarled, leafless tree looks like it could collapse on the stage at any moment. A sharp, white light circles it, like the sun, but also the roaming eye of some omniscient, detached observer. The jagged movements and music (John Cage, Philip Glass; the usual suspects) and all black costuming make the eight dancers look like a cult in mid-ritual.

“Wings of Wax.” Photo © Rosalie O’Connor.

The dancers manipulate each other and imprison themselves in contortions that would make Martha Graham, the pioneer of modern dance technique, proud. Choreographer Jirí Kylián uses the piece’s agitation to create discomfort in the viewer. The dancers look like they are in turmoil, emotions manifested through movement. For all its grandiosity, Kylián says that’s it’s all about our “everyday struggles.” Everyone wants to fly to the sun. Most of us burn up before we get there. At least there’s “Cacti” to cheer us up.

Pretentious postmodernism could use a good spoof and Alexander Ekman’s surreal “Cacti” is it. There’s a narrator, a didactic voice that ponders the meaning of “collaboration” and being “pro-cacti.” It begins with 16 dancers kneeling on top of Scrabble-like tiles. As a string quartet performs onstage they beat the tiles and their bodies to create a pulsing rhythm. Soon every dancer holds a cactus and the tiles are moved to create a sculpture. This is when a duet, with a mind-reading twist, begins.

In the highlight of the program, two dancers rehearse to the sounds of Haydn and Beethoven while their thoughts are exposed. “I can give you my leg,” he says, moving his left foot forward. “Okay,” she responds after a pause, thrusting her head under. The drama builds. “I think we need some distance,” she says, running to the other side of the stage. “What about the cat?” he says later. Just guess what happens then.

“Cacti” ensemble. Photo © Rosalie O’Connor.

Soon the ensemble returns with their cacti under individual spotlights that hover just above them, feet away from crushing them. They go out one by one as the voice stutters, uncertain “This is the end…yes, this must be it…yes I think it should end here.” And it did, unfortunately. It was the only flaw in the work: not that it ended in the wrong place, but that it had to end at all.

The Boston Ballet will be performing the show through April 2. Students with a full-time ID can purchase rush tickets day of the show for $25, cash only. A student subscription is also available for $25 per show. More information is available online at bostonballet.org. 

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