Chicago is blessed with so many outstanding contemporary dance companies that one might overlook the pleasures of that more traditional form of dance, ballet. Fortunately for Chicagoans, the Joffrey Ballet is too good to ignore. Neither is it un-contemporary. Although it regularly presents neo-classics like “The Nutcracker,” it relies just as often on avant garde choreography to make its pointe. The big difference between the Joffrey and contemporary dance troupes lies not in footwear — toe shoes are in evidence in only one out of three of the provocative pieces that comprise “Human Landscapes,” the Joffrey’s fall mixed repertory program now at the Auditorium Theatre — but in the characteristic that informs all of its movement: grace.
Grace is what unites the pieces in the fall program, pieces that originated generations apart: 1932, 1981 and 2010 — although year of birth has little to do with how we experience their newness. Before the dancing begins, the graceful movements of the corps de ballet are showcased in a mini-documentary video that takes us into the Joffrey’s studio space to reveal the grueling rehearsal process — it takes hard work to achieve grace. The well-crafted video also serves to whet the audience’s appetites for the dancing to come.
First up is “Forgotten Land,” created for the Stuttgart Ballet in 1981 by Czech choreographer Jiří Kylián and first (and last) offered by the Joffrey in 1985. Said to have been inspired by an Edvard Munch painting of women on a beach staring at the sea, “Forgotten Land” opens with a dozen dancers walking toward the backdrop designed by John Macfarlane, an ink-blot depiction of a stormy ocean. Their slow walk is accompanied by a thunderous drum roll from the score of English composer Benjamin Britten’s “Sinfonia da Requiem,” masterfully played by the Chicago Philharmonic, an orchestra worth listening to all on its own, under the direction of Scott Speck.
The dancers are clad in flowing costumes, also designed by Macfarlane, in an ochre-and-umber palette like that of the Auditorium Theatre. Much of the choreography — split-legged, lyrical movement, with arching backbends and unhurried lifts — is organized around a series of pas de deux. But the piece ends on a more isolated note, with three women once again facing the backdrop of the sea.
The Chicago Philharmonic plays Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů’s Symphony No. 2 for the program’s second piece, “Pretty BALLET,” which had its world premiere at the Joffrey only two years ago. Choreographed by James Kudelka, who has worked with dance companies across Canada and the U.S., “Pretty BALLET” is at once the most contemporary and yet most classical piece in the program.
The name may be tongue-in-cheek — “BALLET” poses as an acronym — but the piece is undeniably . . . pretty, in a cutting-edge way. It opens with a breathtaking moment: a tulle-clad ballerina held aloft over a cloud of mist as if floating through the air. The music, with tinkling bells and lots of strings, is as romantic as the movement, but both music and movement are clean and crystal-edged. The dancers move in graceful arcs and circles but display their muscularity, the women with powerful elbow thrusts, the men with reversing twists and sustained jetés. The costumes by Denis Lavoie express a similar duality: the fluffy tulle skirts are see-through, displaying the strength of these modern dancers. In an adagio pas de deux at the heart of the piece (Victoria Jaiani and Miguel Angel Blanco), the ballerina’s feet are bound in blood-red pointe shoes.
In the closing spot specified by the German expressionist choreographer Kurt Jooss for his commentary on the futility and horror of war is “The Green Table,” subtitled “A Dance of Death in Eight Scenes.” Kurt was forced to leave Germany for political reasons in 1933 and returned to his homeland as a British citizen in 1949. “The Green Table” had its premiere in Paris in 1932 and at the Joffrey in 1967. Despite its chronological age, the ballet remains forever young.
Set to music by Frederick A. Cohen, powerfully played by pianists Mungunchimeg Buriad and Paul James Lewis, “The Green Table” opens with a literal green table, where white-gloved diplomats go through the charade of negotiations that end with the jolt of fired pistols. The hypocritical diplomats are dressed in black tailcoats (costumes by Hein Heckroth), their faces hidden beneath grotesque bald-pated masks (masks and lighting by Hermann Markard). It is not fully apparent until the curtain call that three of the dozen or so diplomats are played by women, their ranks filled out by male dancers with slighter builds — their relative puniness in contrast to the muscularity of the soldiers who die in the war the diplomats have created.
The easy-to-follow action features the uber-brawny figure of Death (Fabrice Calmels in a star turn), his chest covered with leather straps to evoke a skeleton, his torso spotlighted in green, the color of the setting for the failed peace talks. Death dances with the helmeted soldiers, commanding them to their graves. Death dances with the war widows, displaying the erotic edge of violence.
In between Death’s visitations, the figure of the Profiteer (Temur Suluashvili) flits over the bodies of the downed soldiers, raiding their pockets. Like the diplomats, the Profiteer wears white gloves, as if loath to dirty his hands with the filth of war. By juxtaposing the ugliness of war with the beauty of dance, “The Green Table” illuminates a complex reality.
“Human Landscapes” gives the audience plenty to ponder while they enjoy the splendor of ballet, beautifully danced. Kudos to Joffrey’s artistic director Ashley Wheater and to the entire corps de ballet.
The Joffrey Ballet “Human Landscapes” Fall Mixed Repertory Program
October 17 – 28, 2012
Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University, 50 E. Congress Pkwy., Chicago
Tickets $31 – $152 at Joffrey Tower, 10 E. Randolph St.; Auditorium Theatre; Ticketmaster 800-982-2787 or ticketmaster.com.
Photos: Herbert Migdoll