Behind the Scenes at Boston Ballet

Text and images capture a company facing a hostile environment, writes Anne Hogan

October 15, 2009

As a former member of the Boston Ballet, it would be disingenuous of me not to acknowledge a personal - indeed a somewhat nostalgic - attraction to the subject matter of this book. Yet one needn't be familiar with the company - or even necessarily a balletomane - to appreciate this portrait of the largely unsung team effort needed to keep a ballet troupe afloat, especially one with a challenging repertoire and a relatively minuscule endowment at a financially untoward moment for the arts in America.

Behind the Scenes at Boston Ballet offers vivid vignettes of an ensemble encompassing the physical therapist and the "toe-shoe manager" as well as the board of trustees. Their collective perspectives shape a gripping saga of a coalition resolved to secure world-class rank after years of hard knocks.

Issuing from the regional endeavours of its founder, E. Virginia Williams, Boston Ballet achieved professional status in 1963 thanks to Ford Foundation seed money and the support of George Balanchine, the choreographer and co-founder of the New York City Ballet, a man instrumental in establishing ballet as a serious art form in the US. Under the direction of Williams, and then Violette Verdy in the early 1980s, the company garnered international visibility by touring, sometimes as the supporting cast for the ageing but indefatigable Rudolf Nureyev.

By the time Mikko Nissinen took the helm in 2001, however, circumstances had deteriorated to the point where they had become dire. In 1997, the death of 22-year-old dancer Heidi Guenther, identified eventually as a heart attack but initially thought to have been provoked by anorexia, prompted negative press on a national scale. A succession of artistic directors, including the brief and frustrated tenure of Maina Gielgud, and several full-length choreographic flops were hugely destabilising - the entire enterprise seemed at a low ebb. Nissinen had his work cut out, only to encounter in 2004 the debacle of eviction from the 3,600-seat Wang Theatre for the annual Nutcracker run, the bread and butter of American ballet.

Nissinen comes across as an optimistic pragmatist, strategically opting for crowd-sustaining fare traversing the usual suspects (Swan Lake, Giselle), Balanchinian neo-classicism and recent creations by the likes of Mark Morris. He has reinstated touring (with the company's enthusiastic reception in Spain boosting morale and renown), and nurtured both resident choreographer Jorma Elo and the "fledgeling" Helen Pickett, whose use of improvisation fruitfully nudges the dancers beyond their comfort zones. Tellingly, Pickett got her chance because Nissinen could not afford a work by William Forsythe, with whom she had worked extensively.

The spectre of the company's deficit haunts Temin's depictions, from the general manager releasing dancers not performing in the last scene to save on rehearsal overtime, to the wardrobe manager fitting alternate casts into the same tutus, to the dancers themselves, giving their physical and emotional best in a climate necessitating cruel downsizings of their roster (including a 20 per cent cut for the 2008-09 season).

The photographs of Wally Gilbert, professor emeritus at Harvard University and a Nobel prizewinner in chemistry, beautifully complement Temin's text. Well-crafted performance shots include the legs-for-days high kicks in both the "Melancholic" section and the ending to Balanchine's The Four Temperaments, while studio images capture the unaffected intensity of process: 81-year-old Alexander Grant coaching a raptly earnest Misa Kuranaga, or Kathleen Breen Combes rehearsing Serenade, suspended in fifth position, arms elegantly outstretched, while the corps members in the background, slightly out of focus, cross or rest theirs on their hips as they scrutinise her loveliness.

Temin's and Gilbert's absorbing, ultimately unresolved chronicle of a company performing to acclaim yet monetarily menaced underscores the current uncertain climate for dance in America. One can but wish Boston Ballet the benefaction due its talent and commitment.

Behind the Scenes at Boston Ballet

By Christine Temin, with photographs by Wally Gilbert

University Press of Florida

240pp, £30.95

ISBN 9780813033532

Published 15 April 2009

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