Boston Ballet’s current program, “Classic Balanchine,” showcases three aspects of the great choreographer. “Prodigal Son” gives us storytelling Balanchine in his version of the biblical parable. “Stravinsky Violin Concerto” (reprised from the company’s 2016-17 season) offers hip, contemporary Balanchine. And “Chaconne” closes the evening with formal, romantic Balanchine. I don’t know what Balanchine bill wouldn’t be “classic,” but this was an outstanding one, and well presented opening night Thursday at the Boston Opera House.
“Prodigal Son,” from 1929, was the last work Balanchine created for Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, with Fauvist sets and costumes by Georges Rouault and a score by Sergei Prokofiev. It’s the second-oldest surviving Balanchine work, after “Apollo”; it’s also one of the first works Boston Ballet performed, back in 1966.
Rebelling against family life, the Prodigal leaves his father and his two sisters and sets out into the world, where he encounters a squadron of bald-headed Goons and a predatory Siren who strip him of his wealth (four amphorae and four horns) and his clothing. After a sequence in which he appears to be crucified, he finds his painful way home, where his father enfolds him in his arms.
Serge Lifar set the bar high in the original title role; his successors have included Jerome Robbins, Edward Villella, Mikhail Baryshnikov, and, in Boston Ballet’s two most recent productions (2003 and 2009), Yury Yanowsky. Thursday’s Prodigal, newly promoted principal Derek Dunn, was all callow, youthful optimism and fierce energy, in sharp contrast to Roddy Doble’s gently patriarchal father. I thought Dunn’s impetuous mime could have been more fleshed out at the beginning, but there was no gainsaying his technique — those pointed feet, to start, and then the corkscrew turns — or his power as he cleared the family fence with ease.
Once out in the world, however, his confidence evaporated: His servants pushed him around, he fell into a banal camaraderie with the Goons, and he was easy prey for the Siren. I was glad to see Lia Cirio give the Siren some vulnerability and warmth; her seduction was professional but not clinical. And Dunn did flesh out his agonizing return.
In “Stravinsky Violin Concerto,” which premiered at New York City Ballet’s 1972 Stravinsky Festival, Balanchine plays with the dissonances of the 1931 title work, its shifts in rhythm and weight, its layers of counterpoint, its asymmetry. In the opening Toccata, the four principals — Thursday it was Kathleen Breen Combes, John Lam, Maria Baranova, and Paul Craig — introduce themselves one by one, each accompanied by a quartet of the opposite gender that follows them like a star’s entourage.
Two contrasted duets follow. Aria I, with its wrestling holds, can be a contest for sexual control; Breen Combes and Lam made it a game of sexual posturing and display, one they’d enjoyed often. In Aria II, it was Craig looking to be the dominant partner and Baranova letting him think he was.
The concluding Capriccio found the principals waving cheerily at the entourages, forming their own high-spirited quartet, switching partners (the entourages followed suit), and miming square-dance and Russian folk steps. This performance, with BSO second violinist Jason Horowitz again playing the solo part, had the right attitude from everyone, but I found it hard to take my eyes off the irrepressibly exuberant Breen Combes.
“Chaconne” started out life as Balanchine’s dances for the 1963 Hamburg State Opera production of Gluck’s 1762 opera “Orfeo ed Euridice,” in which Orpheus and Eurydice are reunited at the end. For the work’s 1976 New York City Ballet premiere, Balanchine added an additional duet for Suzanne Farrell and Peter Martins.
The beginning, to Gluck’s “Dance of the Blessed Spirits,” is clearly set in dance Elysium, as nine women in filmy beige dresses, their hair unbound, swirl in bliss. The principals then enter, from opposite sides of the stage, like the hunter and the unicorn from the ineffable pas de deux of Balanchine’s “Diamonds.” On Thursday, Patrick Yocum and Misa Kuranaga, her hair also loose, seemed to continue that pas de deux; Kuranaga melted, flowed, glided in an astonishing performance.
In the divertissements that follow this celestial opening, the ladies have their hair up; it’s as if Orpheus and Eurydice had returned to earth and are holding court. We get a demi-couple, a pas de trois, a pas de cinq, two supporting couples who come on at the end, and an ensemble of nine women partnered by six men. It’s all pleasing, and Ji Young Chae, in her sprightly duet with Patric Palkens, was exceptional, yet everything seems just backdrop for the return of the principals, who, to a minuet and gavotte, now show off for each other and the audience. I was impressed by how Yocum held his poise in the demanding nonstop steps of his variation. But again it was Kuranaga who stole the show, flirting and swishing her skirts and making Balanchine look like heaven.
“Prodigal Son,” “Stravinsky Violin Concerto,” and “Chaconne,” by George Balanchine. Presented by Boston Ballet. At Boston Opera House, through June 9. Tickets $35-$174. 617-695-6955, www.bostonballet.comJeffrey Gantz can be reached at email@example.com.