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Joffrey Ballet’s “Stories in Motion” Review – Three Dazzling Dance Operettas

By Amy Munice

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The shame—perhaps better described as the crime—by Joffrey Ballet was in only staging its “Stories in Motion” production for five performances. 

 

 

These were three works with superb live orchestral accompaniment that each  showcased short story vignettes choreographed with three very distinct movement alphabets.  What each had in common was having a narrative story at its core that was told without libretto, yet at times with movements so operatic that we imagine there is a projection of the story line above.

 

 

First up was George Balanchine’s 1929 “Prodigal Son”, set to a score by Sergei Prokofiev, and coached by famed dancer Edward Villella, who had played the son in Balanchine’s revival of the work in the 1960’s. 

 

 

The sets were boldly colored naïve art painted backdrops effecting biblical landscapes. 

 

 

The quality of the mainly male cast was apparent, with Balanchine’s frequent emphasis on strong hand gestures and squatting stances that made huge quadriceps shine showcasing their talents all the more.  

 

 

The biblical tale of the son yearning to break free from his family’s tight yoke and ultimately returning to his father’s embrace was told well.  The male dancers who were the Prodigal Son’s drinking partners moved with strength and as a piece or as interlocking moving -parts as the dance required. 

 

 

 

These decades later, it is fun to remember how absolutely revolutionary this choreography—and music!—was when first introduced to the world.

 

 

As if to remind us that ballet is first and foremost about beauty and grace, Antony Tudor’s “Lilac Garden” told stories of forbidden loves, set in a beautiful English garden created with diaphanous curtains with purple flower patterns creating a lush backdrop for the graceful dancers—many ballerinas with gorgeous flowing skirts.  (Set and Costume Design by Desmond Heeley.)

 

 

It is called the first “psychological ballet”, telling the story of a young woman torn between the man she loves and the man she is obligated to marry. 

 

 

The music here was Ernest Chausson’s “Poeme for Violin and Orchestra Opus 25”, with a violin solo so exquisite that the audience no doubt found great relief when the violin soloist, David Perry, was called to the stage for a bow, allowing an audible explosion in the already loud clapping. 

 

 

Perhaps the best for last, Yuri Possokhov’s RAkU, set in morphing videoscapes of a Japanese palace and village created by Alexander Nichols, we saw a truly operatic tale of a man called to war, the rape and pillage of his home and the tragic loss of his wife. 

 

 

It opens with four male dancers who seem to be torn from the pages of a Noh theater script for a warrior play, strong in their movements and moving fluidly to create patterns of rapidly changing angles. 

 

 

Then the set moves apart as if a box is opening, revealing the lead dancers, man and woman, dressed in white kimonos.  After he removes his bulky kimono hers is lifted thirty feet high revealing brightly colored inner floral silk patterns.   You could hear the audience quietly gasp in admiration.  

 

 

Their duet then shows their love.  The music, by Shinji Eshima, at times used just the piano to have high upper register notes for the ballerina, followed by lower register notes for her husband, and then when the pas de deux began the strings joined in. 

 

 

This was exquisitely beautiful. 

 

 

The story unfolds of the husband being called to war and ruin and tragedy descending on his wife and home.  

 

 

An evil villain schemes to bring ruin to the palace, and though we know we are meant to hate him we cannot help ourselves in admiring his athletic and graceful dance across the stage.

 

 

 

 

Near the ballet’s conclusion as his wife dramatically rubs her husband’s ashes over her body we feel as if there is not just a libretto above, but a blinking neon sign with capital letters shouting, “THIS IS WHAT GRIEF LOOKS LIKE”.  

 

 

 

It’s hard to imagine that anyone who saw this ballet will not always remember this image when they too are faced with full frontal grief.

 

 

 

Long-time Joffrey enthusiast Lois Fisher, retired librarian from New Trier High School sat for a bit post-performance as if still digesting all the splendor that had unfolded.  Perhaps speaking for many in the audience, she summarized the performance –“Powerful, and just what we expect from the Joffrey!”.

 

We can only hope that the Joffrey will have the good sense to re-mount “Stories In Motion” again and soon.  This is a work worth seeing many times.

 

Joffrey Ballet is now celebrating its 20th season in Chicago.  For information on other upcoming Joffrey productions call the box office at 312 386 8905 or visit the Joffrey Ballet website.

 

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Photos:  Cheryl Mann

Published on Sep 23, 2014

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