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Boston Ballet program reflects talents of Finland

Company to perform ‘Obsidian Tear’ and ‘Fifth Symphony of Jean Sibelius’

Susan Saccoccia | 11/9/2017, 6 a.m.
Coinciding with the 100th anniversary of Finnish independence from the giant at its border, Russia, the program presents the North ...
Boston Ballet in Jorma Elo’s “Fifth Symphony of Jean Sibelius.” Rosalie O'Connor, courtesy Boston Ballet

The Boston Ballet begins its 2017–2018 season with a majestic program that has Finland as its theme.

Coinciding with the 100th anniversary of Finnish independence from the giant at its border, Russia, the program presents the North American premiere of Wayne McGregor’s “Obsidian Tear” and the world premiere of Jorma Elo’s “Fifth Symphony of Jean Sibelius.”

Boston Ballet in Wayne McGregor’s “Obsidian Tear.”

Boston Ballet in Wayne McGregor’s “Obsidian Tear.”

Its focus reflects the talents and Finnish roots of two native sons within the Boston Ballet, Artistic Director Mikko Nissinen and Resident Choreographer Jorma Elo, as well as the gifts of two revered Finnish musicians, contemporary composer Esa-Pekka Salonen and Jean Sibelius (1865–1957), regarded as the father of Finnish music.

Finland is a small country in population — with less than six million people — but large in unspoiled geography of alpine tundra, forests and lakes, and at the top in global indices that track human rights, prosperity and quality of life.

The music of Salonen and Sibelius is ardently conducted and performed, with the superb Boston Ballet Orchestra led by guest conductor Daniel Stewart, musical director of the Santa Cruz Symphony, handpicked by Salonen for the premiere.

The program, on stage through Nov. 12 at the Boston Opera House, begins not with a dance performance, but instead, with a richly textured orchestral performance of “Finlandia,” (1900) a symphonic poem by Sibelius that evokes the landscape of Finland. A love song to a country in which individualism and collective good are hallowed values that coexist in harmony, the soaring symphonic poem has a hummable melody at its heart that has itself become a hymn.

The first of two ballets on the program is “Obsidian Tear,” a co-production with the Royal Ballet in London, where it received its world premiere on May 28, 2016. The Boston Ballet added another McGregor work, “Chroma,” to its repertoire in 2013, and its performances of the ballet that year and in 2015 won rave reviews.

The new ballet’s title evokes a black volcanic rock, obsidian, used in surgical tools for its hardness as a cutting instrument, and the dual meanings of “tear” — the act of ripping apart and the emotional release of tears. The rock’s lustrous black surface is echoed in the ballet’s black costumes and McGregor’s spare set, dominated by a black backdrop.

The nine men who perform “Obsidian Tear” wear costumes that bare their chests and arms. Eight wear black body suits chosen by Katie Shillingford. Only one is in different attire — wide-legged red pants in a vaguely Orientalist style that resemble the pantaloons worn by turbaned men in a European Romantic era painter’s image of a harem.

Deft lighting by Lucy Carter illuminates the floor as a white frame for the red and black palette of the costumes, and marks transitions between the two segments of the ballet by momentarily transforming the floor into a band of blue light.

The first segment is performed by two men, the dancer in red pants and another clad in black, to the haunting Salonen composition “Lachen verlernt,” a violin solo exquisitely played by Christine Vitale.