Opening like a Fabergé egg, Joffrey Ballet Chicago’s “Russian Masters” program at the Auditorium Theatre reveals one delight after another to culminate in a blood-red jewel, Vaslav Nijinsky’s 100-year-old “Le Sacre du Printemps” (“The Rite of Spring”). The Joffrey dancers, under the guidance of artistic director Ashley Wheater, execute the work of the Russian choreographers with an extraordinary combination of grace and muscle.
To open the egg, the dancers crack the delicate shell of “Allegro Brillante,” dedicated to the memory of Maria Tallchief, the ballerina for whom St. Petersburg–born George Balanchine created the leading role when it premiered at the New York City Ballet in 1956. Although not a story ballet, “Allegro Brillante” expresses a central metaphor, the piano. Balanchine studied piano at the Conservatory in St. Petersburg, and after the Bolsheviks closed the Imperial Ballet, he played piano in cabarets to put food on the table.
In “Allegro Brillante” the choreographer showcases the first movement of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s unfinished third piano concerto, the composer’s final work (Scott Speck is the capable music director). The dancers become something of a human keyboard as they delicately pluck their way in single notes and chords through the precisely timed movements. April Daly and Dylan Gutierrez take center stage, foiled by four couples, already in motion as the curtain parts: Yoshi Arai, Guillaume Basso, Graham Maverick, Jeraldine Mendoza, Alexis Polito, Christine Rocas, Lucas Segovia and Kara Zimmerman.
Next come two works by contemporary choreographer Yuri Possokhov. Possokhov danced with the Bolshoi for 10 years and now serves as resident choreographer of San Francisco Ballet. “Adagio,” which premiered in California in 2012, may be new to Chicago, but from the embrace the audience gave it on opening night, it’s clear that it belongs here. That makes sense, given that it was choreographed for Joffrey dancers (and real-life husband and wife) Victoria Jaiani and Temur Suluashvili. The choreography fits these dancers like a well-made glove: they move with languid, sexy synchronicity as they wrap themselves around one another, the impossibly long-limbed Jaiani twisting her knee backward in one of the dance’s repeated movements. The pas de deux is set to music by Russian composer Aram Khachaturian from the ballet “Spartacus.”
“Bells,” Possokhov’s first work for The Joffrey Ballet, premiered in Chicago in 2011 and is reprised in “Russian Masters.” In this contemporary ballet, five male and five female dancers in various combinations move through a series of seven piano compositions by Sergei Rachmaninoff. The piano accompaniment by Mungunchimeg Buriad and Kuang-Hao Huang gives the piece the atmosphere of a ballet studio, with the dancers trying out new steps. The men are particularly strong here, and Possokhov pays as much attention to choreographing arms as he does legs. Costumes by Sandra Woodall of filmy beige over blood-red leotards makes the dancers appear as thin-membraned organisms, the beating of their hearts visible beneath their skin.
Capping off “Russian Masters” is “Le Sacre du Printemps,” a ballet considered so shocking that it set off riots at its premiere in Paris in 1913, with audience members poking one another with hatpins, according to a video that precedes the performance. But unlike the majority of ground-breaking art that, with the benefit of hindsight, seems tame a mere 10 or so years later, “Printemps” remains as provocative as ever.
The story ballet of 12 scenes divided between two acts tells of the pagan sacrifice of a virgin by her village to usher in spring. Joanna Wozniak excels as The Chosen One, a demanding role that requires her to spring from what looks like a catatonic state, her head tilted at an unnatural angle away from her neck, into sudden hyperactivity. She is surrounded by a village of 37 dancers clad in tunics and ankle wrappings, their hair dressed in long, whip-like braids.
The choreography, with its pigeon-toed feet and uncanny body positions, matches the atonal ferocity of Igor Stravinsky’s score. That “Printemps” can be performed today is something of a miracle, one made possible by the persistence of company founder Robert Joffrey, who in 1987 commissioned a restoration of the then-almost-lost ballet in its original form. American dance historian Millicent Hodson painstakingly reconstructed Nijinsky’s choreography, filling in missing steps as seamlessly as a master art restorer.
The result is a fully formed piece that is as close to the original as possible, so close in fact that it shocks us all over again. Almost an anti-ballet, “Printemps” ditches the tutus and toe shoes, obscuring the bodies of the lithe dancers under baggy tunics. In executing Nijinsky’s feral poetry, the Joffrey dancers, with their remarkable range, reveal a whole new form of grace.
Joffrey Ballet Chicago
Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress Parkway, Chicago
Sept. 19 – 22, 2013
Tickets: $31 – $152 Joffrey Box Office, 10 E. Randolph Street; Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University Box Office; (800) 982-2787 or online at ticketmaster.com