ABT Entertains Chicago

Stella Abrera and Calvin Royal III in "Bach Partiita". Photo by Gene Shiavone.

The American Ballet Theatre (ABT) has one more performance left this weekend at the Auditorium Theatre. Download the Bears app to keep track of the game and head to the theater to see this All-American Celebration featuring Back Partita and Sinatra Suite by Twyla Tharp, Some Assembly Required by Clark Tippet and Fancy Free by Jerome Robbins.

At first, I was curious why they chose to bring this program considering Chicago audiences recently saw Robbins’ Fancy Free (Stars of the American Ballet) and Nine Sinatra Songs (The Joffrey Ballet) a few weeks ago at the Chicago Dancing Festival, but witnessing the audience reaction to these works left no doubt they made the right choice. Opening with the piquantly performed Bach Partita set the tone, showing off the talent and breadth of the massive company right out of the gate…or curtain. ABT smartly used the fame juggernaut that is Misty Copeland in promoting the performances, but Gillian Murphy was the star of this piece. Tharp’s brisk and difficult choreography was a breeze for Murphy who never missed a beat and was expertly partnered by the handsome Marcelo Gomes (who just danced the lead in Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake in Japan).

Tippet’s breezy duet danced by Sarah Lane (dance double for Natalie Portman in Black Swan) and Sterling Baca was a delightful, if too long interlude before the other Tharp piece stole the show. Sinatra Suite uses five of the nine duets from her Nine Sinatra Songs to blockbuster effect with the famous and formidable coupling of Copeland and Gomes. The audience gasped as the two entered from the wings to Sinatra’s crooning voice. Having seen this work many times over the past decades, I was not expecting anything new, but the charisma and obvious fun they were having was truly infectious and made the overdone piece seem fresh.

By now, the touring troupe had the audience in its grip and closing with Robbins’ Fancy Free, in hindsight, seems perfect. The fun dance theater piece about three young sailors on leave looking for action took the audience on a sweet ride. It was a real treat to see long-time friend of the blog Daniil Simkin (now a principal dancer) as one of the sassy sailors. Special mention goes to the Chicago Philharmonic Orchestra – always fantastic – and, in particular, violinist Charles Yang, who played brilliant solos for the first two pieces of the evening.

American Ballet Theatre performs today at 2:00 PM at the Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress Pkwy. Tickets are $34-$129, call 800.982.2787. Use code: JOFFREY for 20% off tickets. 

*Disclosure: I work for The Joffrey Ballet and the Chicago Philharmonic Orchestra is our resident orchestra. 

Joffrey’s Russian Masters: Review

Joffrey's Joanna Wozniak in "Le Sacre du Printemps". Photo by Roger Mastroianni.

Russian choreographers don’t do light and fluffy. At least the ones presented in The Joffrey Ballet‘s Russian Masters program don’t. The four works on the bill, which opened last night and runs through Sunday, span nearly a century of dancemaking and represent pure aesthetic dancing to literally dancing oneself to death. Great “Russian masters” Balanchine, Nijinski, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky and Khachaturian were joined by the only living artist represented, San Francisco Ballet’s choreographer in residence, Yuri Possokhov, for an evening of daring, dramatic dancing accompanied by the phenomenal Chicago Philharmonic.

Balanchine’s 1956 Allegro Brilliante opened the program with a dazzling display of pure dance. No story to follow here, just fast feet and sparkling technique. Not surprising, the perky cast, lead by the lovely April Daly and Dylan Gutierriez, studied or danced at places that have a heavy Balanchine/neoclassical influence in their rep: Washington Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet and, of course, School of American Ballet. Their solid grasp and love for the style/technique (speedy petite allegro, elongated lines, open arabesque, etc.) really shined. I guess it could be considered light in comparison to the rest of the evening, but definitely not fluffy. Any Balanchine work is hard – understatement – but these dancers were more than up to the task.

A 2012 duet by Possokhov created on Victoria Jaiani and Temur Suluashvili (look, more Russians!) set to an adagio from Spartacus proved a dramatic display obviously focused on Jaiani’s incredibly flexible technical facility. Adagio incorporated interesting inside/out partnering with tricky, twisted grips (some more solid than others) and some trust-inspiring inverted lifts in the couple’s first pas de deux of the night. Possokhov’s Bells, created for Joffrey in 2011, provides another “pure dance” piece, in that there is no story, just his interpretation of the music and some clever creative tweaks on classical technique and traditional Russian folk dance. Slides en pointe, snapping fingers, kisses on each cheek add a fun element to the devilishly difficult choreography. Pas de deuxs by Anastacia Holden and Matthew Adamczyk (flirty), Daly and Fabrice Calmels (sultry), and Jaiani and Suluashvili (passionate) did not disappoint.

The highlight of the evening was the 1987 reconstruction by Millicent Hodson of Vaslav Nijinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring) celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. In an introductory video of the work, Hodson called it “the ballet that changed the course of history”. Its premiere in 1913 famously invoked a riot in Paris due to the discordant music, non-traditional choreography and shocking ending. The dancers stomp, flat-footed with turned in feet, fall to the ground repeatedly wearing pagan villagers costumes complete with painted faces, braids and animal skins. The “Rite” is a virgin sacrifice of “The Chosen One” (danced with haunting brilliance by Joanna Wozniak) where she must dance until she dies. The women of the clan offer her up as the weakest link and leave her alone to be encircled by the men, who oversee her fate. (Thanks ladies!) Wozniak stands center stage with her head tilted, palms out, feet turned in, still and staring at the audience for what seems like forever only to suddenly burst into rapid, consecutive jumps…a LOT of them. She eventually drops to the ground and the men lift her dead body to the sky. The End. What an image to finish the night on.

An enormous BRAVO to the Chicago Philharmonic and director Scott Speck for a fantastic evening of music. From the beautiful Khachaturian adagio (which sounded so perfect and like a recorded soundtrack that I had to check to make sure it was live) to the notoriously difficult to play – and to listen to – Stravinsky score, they played everything to perfection.

Guest Review: Joffrey Ballet’s Othello

Joffrey dancer Fabrice Calmels in "Othello". Photo by Cheryl Mann.

How cool is this? My friend was so impressed with Joffrey Ballet‘s Othello that she took it upon herself to write a review! And the fact that we both led with the same Shakespeare quote proves that brilliant Libra minds think alike. Thanks Joc :)

REVIEW: Othello by the Joffrey Ballet
By Jocelyn Fuller

“O, beware, my lord, of jealousy!

It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock

The meat it feeds on.”

- Iago in Othello

Note from author: I have NO IDEA how to critique or write about dance, so please don’t be offended.

“How are they going to pull this off?” That’s what I asked myself when Rogue Ballerina invited me, a ballet novice and Shakespeare fanatic, to Othello by the Joffrey Ballet. The Bard is known as a wordsmith, not a choreographer. And Othello, my favorite Shakespeare story of manipulation, jealousy and death? I owed it to myself and all Shakespeare fans out there to see it for myself. Don’t get me wrong; I’m a Joffrey believer. I’ve been to four or five shows and never been disappointed, but Shakespeare? Hmm….

Not only am I believer, I may be the maker of the Joffrey kool aid now after seeing this show. It wasn’t just the stunning choreography by Lar Lubovitch, or the dancers, or the chilling sets, or perfectly crafted costumes; it was the riveting score of Elliot B. Goldenthal performed by The Chicago Philharmonic that made the show so electrifying. The way in which this performance told the tale of such a tragic, gut-wrenching story through movement and music was astonishing to me. I found myself more connected and emotionally attached to the characters of the ballet than I have of most theatrical performances I’ve seen in years past.
Fabrice Calmels as Othello was breathtaking. The only other man I’ve seen play Othello on stage who exposed his soul to the role more was James Earl Jones – and that’s probably only due to his bellowing tone and 40+ years he probably has on Calmels. I felt Calmels’ pain, his jealousy, and his rage with every movement as the Venetian Moor.

Oh, Iago. One of the most hated men in all of Shakespeare. How I love to hate thee.  Matthew Adamczyk was spectacular with his sharp movements of scheming and evil, making you feel hatred at his every step. He would make the old Bard himself proud. Many find Othello to be the star of this play, but I always lean a little more towards Iago.

The rest of the cast was equally as talented. April Daly as Desdemona was sweet, innocent and angelic, just as Desdemona should be. Her story telling through her dance was exquisite.

I will most certainly be raving about this show for weeks to come. My passion for Shakespeare has been reignited once again with this powerful performance by a very talented group of people that this city should be so proud to call our own. I am a believer.

 

Joffrey Goes Deep

Joffrey Ballet dancers in James Kudelka's "Pretty BALLET". Photo by Herbert Migdoll.

“To express your human spirit is a beautiful thing,” Ashley Wheater said in a pre-taped, pre-show video last night before the opening curtain of The Joffrey Ballet‘s fall program at the Auditorium Theatre. As artistic director of the company, he’s tasked with creating an environment for the dancers and audience to grow, learn and thrive. With Human Landscapes, he succeeded immeasurably. The three works on the program span nine decades and range from minimalist German expressionism to modern contemporary ballet and pushed the dancers and audience beyond their comfort zones with resounding success. The Chicago Philharmonic, under the direction of Joffrey Musical Director Scott Speck, added pitch perfect timbre to the contemplative tone of the evening.

As the curtain opens on Jirí Kylián’s Forgotten Land the dancers all face upstage looking out over a dark, but beautiful set designed by John F. Macfarlane, inspired in part by an Edvard Munch painting of women on a beach. The sound of wind, which is actually Kylián blowing into a microphone, alludes to turbulent times and the turmoil of loss.  Couples in muted colors (black, red, gray, biege, pink and white) ebb and flow in duets, trios and sextets to music from British composer Benjamin Britten. Each color has its own mood and tempo for movement. A beautiful trio of women end the piece on a somber note.

James Kudelka’s Pretty BALLET, orginally created for the Joffrey dancers in 2010, elicited audible wonder from the audience with its opening tableau. amidst a white fog, Miguel Angel Blanco holds Victoria Jaiani in a horizontal overhead lift as if she’s a puppet waiting to be set free. The long, white tulle skirts on the women are a nod to classical “white” ballets, and aside from a lovely pas de deux by Jaiani and Blanco (where Jaiani, again puppet-like, exits walking en pointe as if a blind or in a trance), that’s all that is pretty here. Women run and circle like demented Wilis, while men march across the stage with forceful battements and fisted hands. Kudelka (on video) said that “ballet is going through an interestingly rough time”. His take in Pretty BALLET shows that ballet doesn’t have to be pretty as long as it’s good – and this is, although the group sections weren’t as tight as in 2010 and could use some cleaning.

Joffrey Ballet dancers Fabrice Calmels and Anastacia Holden in Kurt Jooss' "The Green Table". Photo by Herbert Migdoll.

The most exciting work on the program was Kurt Jooss’ 1932 anti-war ballet The Green Table: A Dance of Death in Eight Scenes. A green table surrounded by “the Gentlemen in Black”, diplomats and politicians, argue about the prospect of going to war. The answer comes as the ten “men” pull out pistols (loaded with blanks) and fire them into the air. In the following six scenes “Death” – in a stellar performance by Fabrice Calmels – is a foreboding, always present presence. He lurks in the background only to swoop onto a battlefield or village and take life, casually, violently and compassionately. The scene where he takes the life of “The Young Girl”, the wonderful Anastacia Holden, was both heart-wrenching and beautiful. Interwoven through the scenes is the Charlie Chaplin-esque character “The Profiteer”, danced brilliantly by Temur Suluashvili. The ballet ends as it began with another meeting at the table, a nod to seemingly perpetual war. Dancer Erica Lynette Edwards said it best (again, from the video), “stillness speaks volumes”. The moments of stillness, of holding a simple gesture, were the most powerful.

Breaking News: Joffrey

Joffrey Music Director Scott Speck. Photo courtesy of Scott Speck.

This is great news!  The Joffrey Ballet just announced a new partnership with the Chicago Philharmonic to present live music for all performances in the 2012-2013 season.  Citing budgetary restrictions as the reason for switching from the Chicago Sinfonietta, the orchestra that has accompanied the Joffrey since 2003, executive director Christopher Clinton Conway stated in the press release: “Having live music makes a huge difference both to the dancers and to our audience as it enriches the overall experience for everyone.”

Joffrey’s Music Director, Scott Speck, will guest conduct for the Joffrey performances which will include James Kudelka’s Pretty BALLET, Lar Lubovitch’s Othello and the company’s ever-popular version of The Nutcracker.

For more information on Joffrey’s 2012-2013 season, visit joffrey.com.