Taking risks is part of the Joffrey Ballet’s history. Founders Robert Joffrey and Gerald Arpino had grand ambitions: reviving masterworks of the past as well as performing new works, always a risky business.
As Joffrey audience members in the 1960s and ’70s, our retinas still burn with the images of Christian Holder and Max Zomosa as Death in Kurt Jooss’s 1932 ballet The Green Table. (This masterpiece is to be revived by the Joffrey in the 2012-2013 season. The ballet was created between World Wars I and II and unfortunately will always be relevant. ) And who could forget Ballets Russes’s 1917 work Parade (those wild costumes by Picasso!)? Or Nijinsky’s Petrouchka?
But the Joffrey performed new works back then, too, that were surprising in their day: the rock ballet Trinity or the dance in which a man in a suit, sitting as part of the audience, stood up and walked onto the stage to dance under the siren call of the title goddess, Astarte. While new works are sometimes startling and popular in their day, they don't survive their time in history to become classics.
So Artistic Director Ashley Wheater deserves credit for bringing newer works into the repertoire. And you can predict if the three ballets on this program will pass the test of passing time and changing tastes to become classics.
For those who prefer to receive info visually/auditorially, there’s a brief video before the performance. Artistic Director Ashley Wheater comments on the evening’s works while you catch glimpses of the dancers rehearsing. You’ll miss the little note in the program, though, that warns you that the music might be a bit loud for your taste—earplugs are available.
The program comprises three pieces, all done on a bare stage with minimal costuming. There’s a good deal of imaginative movement done at a high level of technical skill.
William Forsythe’s 1987 In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated (a Joffrey premiere) opens when the lights suddenly blink on to show the dancers in turquoise and black leotards and tights, looking very small in the high, wide space on and above the stage. A quick series of intense duets and solos is filled with beautiful, fluid movements that wind into satisfying completion only to slide into something new. There are changing patterns of individuals and groups going in and out of unison, interspersed with relaxed walking or jogging to a different spot.
Neither the music, a percussive score by Thom Willems in collaboration with Leslie Stuck, nor the movement build to a climax, however, and the dance ends abruptly with a blackout.
It was a pleasure to hear the brief tune-up of the Chicago Sinfonietta, with the promise of live music. Alternating between dramatic urgency and sweetness, Arvo Part’s music adds depth as well as inspiration for Christopher Wheeldon’s beautiful movement in After the Rain, enjoying a welcome return to the Joffrey stage.
The backdrop suggests lowering clouds over a field of dark blue. After the striking opening pose of three couples in a receding line, the women bending forward with right leg jutting out in second position, parallel to the floor, hovering over the men on the floor, the dance spins out one arresting image after another: the women’s legs like clock hands sweeping around; the man walking backwards across the stage, carrying a woman whose legs are bicycling away.
For the second half of the ballet, the forbidding backdrop lifts, and the stage is bathed in soft pink light to match Victoria Jaiani’s pink leotard. The piano’s tolling bass compliments the violins, notes falling like rain dripping from leaves.
Fabrice Calmels’s large, powerful body (with no shirt, so you can see his back muscles working as he bends over and lifts his partner) makes a startling foil for Jaiani’s delicacy. It’s the dancer’s trick: to look fragile while having the powerful muscles to propel yourself off the floor and the strength to make a controlled and soundless landing.
The gentle placement of her hand in his, the achingly slow lift in which she spirals down and around him, his framing the line of her arabesque with his hands and running away from her, carrying that line, extending it across the stage: each tender movement etchs beauty into the air. The simplest gesture conveys emotional content.
The music doesn’t build in After the Rain, but its simpler scoring (piano [Paul James Lewis] and violins [Paul Zafer, Carol Lahti]) and emotionally rich content offer a very satisfying ground on which to dance. The piece is shorter than its companions on the program, too, which means it may have escaped dancer Doris Humphrey’s caution: “All dances are too long.” The dance and the dancers (Valerie Robin, Matthew Adamczyk, April Daly, and Rory Hohenstein as well as Jaiani and Calmels), deserved the bravoes and standing ovation.
Infra, by choreographer Wayne McGregor, is the U.S. premiere of a 2008 work for the Royal Ballet in London. For the ballet, artist Julian Opie designed an LED screen the hangs above the back of the bare stage, providing electronic figures that walk back and forth singly and eventually in crowds. They’re the identity-free pedestrians, the strangers we pass in the street, just as they pass us.
Under the LED screen (under the pavement, under the skin? “Infra” means “under” in Latin.), the dance opens in the wide, dark space of the stage. The melancholy music has an overlay of train sounds, urban noise, the scratchy, mechanical background of city life and group living.
A trio of men is very busy, scrambling about. The twelve dancers move singly, in pairs, undulating, wrestling, surging, dealing with their own problems. Six boxes of white light appear on the floor, each with a male/female pair in its own unknowable story until the women are dragged backward into the dark.
The dance has one moment of raw emotion, when a woman, standing over a stricken man lying on the floor, convulses into sobs. She grieves, alone, as strangers walk by.
We’re told that McGregor created this ballet after the London subway bombings in 2005, and the program quotes from T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land:
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn.
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
So when a crowd of pedestrians, the real-people equivalent of all those LED dots, walks across the stage, not in leotards and tights but in everyday clothing, someone in an overcoat, a woman carrying a purse, flowing across the stage, it makes a powerful visual statement--so many, so many—and it would have made a powerful ending. Except that a “hopeful” duet is the last movement we see as the curtain lowers.
Photos by Herbert Migdoll
The Joffrey Ballet’s “Winter Fire” program runs Wednesday, February 15 through Sunday, February 26. The complete schedule is as follows: Wednesday, Feb. 15, 7:30 pm; Friday, Feb. 17, 7:30 pm; Saturday, Feb. 18, 2:00 pm and 7:30 pm; Sunday, Feb. 19, 2:00 pm; Thursday, Feb. 23, 7:30 pm; Friday, Feb. 24, 7:30 pm; Saturday, Feb. 25, 2:00 pm and 7:30 pm; Sunday, Feb. 26, 2:00 pm
Single tickets range from $25 to $149 and are available for purchase at The Joffrey Ballet’s official Box Office located in the lobby of Joffrey Tower, 10 E. Randolph Street, as well as the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University Box Office, all Ticketmaster Ticket Centers, by telephone at (800) 982-2787, or online at www.ticketmaster.com.