CDF13: The Harris at 10! Anniversary Special

Tamako Miyazaki and Brooklyn Mack in "Diana and Actaeon pas". Photo by Sarah Weymar.

Opening night of the 7th annual Chicago Dancing Festival (CDF13) was in honor of the Harris Theatre‘s 10th anniversary – and what a celebration it was. A packed house was treated to a star-studded, eclectic evening of beautiful dancing. It is an amazing thing watching local audiences witness for FREE what I am humbly privileged to see all the time as a dance writer and from the reaction (thunderous applause, mini standing ovations and, what I can only call, whooping), they enjoyed it as much as I did.

Pieces are announced by a Let’s-get-ready-to-ruuuuuuuumble! voice over giving pertinent details of the upcoming work. The show started off with a bang – or stomp – with a CDF13 commissioned work by local artists Lane Alexander and Bril Barrett. Chicago Human Rhythm Project busted out some crazy mad beats in a showcase of a groovy, partially improvised master tap class. Shout out to the ladies Donnetta Jackson and Starinah (“Star”, yes she is) Dixon. The flaptastic opening was followed by Hubbard Street Dance Chicago performing Little Mortal Jump (2012) by their resident choreographer Alejandro Cerrudo. (If you’ve ever read my blog, you know I’m a huge fan of AC.) This fun, theatrical work never ceases to impress. Retirements and injuries updated the original casting and added new, interesting timing and phrasing choices. The slow-motion duet near the end by Ana Lopez and Jesse Bechard always gives me goosebumps. A woman sitting near me started a chorus of “Bravos”, while a number of people jumped to their feet with enthusiasm.

Washington Ballet dancer Brooklyn Mack and Tamako Miyazaki of the Columbia Classical Ballet and Dortmund Ballet stunned in the Diana and Actaeon pas de deux. I wasn’t familiar with this pas based on a greek myth where a goddess turns a man into a deer like a 1935 balletic version of Beauty and the Beast. The casting of Miyazaki (tiny, pale and petite) and Mack (tall, dark and massive) was perfect. Both were exceptional dancers showing off technical tricks in a classic forum. While Miyazaki breezed across the floor with fleet footwork, Mack defied gravity with amazing jumps. Those jumps!** A friend said it was a switch leap, jete coupe with a 520…huh? I still can’t quite figure out what that is, but WOW! And he did it more than once. Not to be outdone, Miyazaki more than held her own with beautiful extensions, pristine pointe work and top-like turns. Her fouette run in the coda with a double every other turn and a lightly landed triple to finish was only topped by the supported turns with Mack that were so fast, furious and frequent that I lost count. (Yes, I do count them). Get thee to the Pritzker Pavillion in Millennium Park to see this for yourself on Saturday at 7:30 pm. What a way to end Act I.

The only work that seemed to leave the audience perplexed was festival co-founder Lar Lubovitch‘s Crisis Variations (2011), which was likely from a lack of exposure to this style. Set to a musical suite of the same title, and played by the amazing Le Train Bleu, Crisis was difficult and dischordant from the start. The swooping, circular flow that I love about his choreography was absent here, likely on purpose, but I missed it. The dancers of his company began in formations on the floor and for most of the dance, the majority stayed on the floor as if grounded by a magnet or unbearable burden. A couple performed a dependent and (again) difficult duet, climbing and resting on top of one another as if struggling and helping each other at the same time. Perhaps that was the point. Something can come out of a crisis that is unique, strong and loving, but not necessarily pretty.

Brian Brooks in "I'm Going to Explode". Photo by Christopher Duggan.

New York-based artist Brian Brooks followed with a quirky solo I’m Going to Explode (2007). Beginning in a chair on stage left, the suited and ready for work Brooks took off his shoes and jacket, walked to the other side of the stage and started swishing his arms from front to back, then side to side. The movement became more frenetic as if he indeed was going to explode. He looked like a human washing room, but with the cycle going backwards. He started off crisp and dry and ended soaked and disheveled. As he made his way back to the chair, the audience couldn’t wait for him to put his shoes back on before starting to clap. Rounding out the show was a balls-to-the-walls performance of Stanton Welch’s Son of Chamber Symphony by the Joffrey Ballet. This work, created for them last season, demonstrated the opposite end of the classical ballet spectrum. With inside-out tutus, impeccable, off-kilter technique to a contemporary score, Son is almost a ballet inverted. My notes are basically a list of the cast as every dancer brought their ‘A’ game and then some.

It was a spectacular night of dance to open the festival. It makes me proud to be a Chicagoan. I can’t wait to see what happens next.

**UPDATE: I sat next to Brooklyn Mack at CDF’s Dancing in Chicago show last night (08/22/13). He told me the jumps are a twist on a 540, not 520 as I originally reported. Here is a video of a Le Corsaire pas. The male dancer does two 540s at the beginning, so you can see the base of Mack’s incredible jump.

Joffrey Ballet’s Othello 2.0

Joffrey dancers April Daly and Fabrice Calmels in "Othello". Photo by Cheryl Mann.

O, beware, my lord, of jealousy!

It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock

The meat it feeds on.

Othello: Act III, scene iii

Nobody does drama like Shakespeare. The Bard, who had a birthday this week, adapted the story Othello from a 1566 work by Geraldo Cintio and in turn, Lar Lubovitch, who just turned 70, adapted the tale into movement for the dance stage. Add in an original, chilling score by Oscar-winning composer Elliot Goldenthal and the incomparable opening night cast of Joffrey Ballet principals and you have something extraordinary. Last night, Othello: A Dance In Three Acts, the story, the choreography, the music and the cast all came together in a perfect spiral of love, deceit, beauty, betrayal and death. Joffrey performed this ballet in 2009 to great reviews, but the second time around is even better.

The story. Although Lubovitch doesn’t directly follow Cintio or Shakespeare’s versions, the essence of the story is embedded in his movement. Ballet steps get a contemporary twist with a flexed foot, bent arm or parallel leg. Corps scenes take an ominous edge with twitchy, staccato moves. Each principal’s character is revealed in everything they do. The simple turn of a head or placement of a hand relates the intention in a second. The dancers don’t have to act for the story to be told, yet this cast acted their roles to perfection.

The choreography. For me, Lubovitch’s genius lies in the intuitiveness of his partnering. Sweeping, circular lifts with unexpected holds float to the floor and back up again with amazing fluidity. The strength required for most of his partnering is immense, yet the dancers never look taxed.

The music. Dark and dangerous like the plot, this music isn’t your typical ballet score. Loud timpani drums, saxophone, and oboe punctuate the lighter notes of the marriage pas de deux. Iago’s sharp, thrashing solo is all but dictated by the angry horn section’s shouts. The Act II tarantella speeds to its conclusion carrying the storyline along with its pace. A few Psycho-esque moments let us in a fracturing mind that’s ready to kill. The difficult score was beautifully played by the Chicago Philharmonic Orchestra led by Scott Speck.

Joffrey dancers Fabrice Calmels and April Daly in "Othello". Photo by Cheryl Mann.

The cast. This cast. The originals. Bravo for bringing back the five original principal dancers. Fabrice Calmels (Othello), April Daly (Desdemona), Matthew Adamczyk (Iago), Valerie Robin (Emilia), and Aaron Rogers (Cassio) were completely committed to their characters as if letting them simmer and age for four years made them exquisitely ripe. Calmels was strong, fierce and frightening, cutting an imposing, yet ultimately fragile figure on the stage, his solos impassioned and impressive. Daly made an impression with her first solo (the “Look, he gave me a hankie!” dance) with her bourrees as fast and light as butterflies and beveled extensions to the skies. The two together created something magical with her tiny, delicate, light frame next to his tall, chiseled and dark body. I really can’t say enough about how beautifully these two dance together. Adamczyk personified evil, lurking on the edges spider-like, then creeping in to weave his tragic web with one raised eyebrow revealing the murderous thought in his head.  Robin, a seriously strong dancer, played the battered wife role with aplomb. You have to be that strong to be thrown around like that and make it look easy. Rogers, always delightful, brought his precise technique and ballon to his wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time role. Stacia Holden stood out as the sassy Bianca and special shout outs to Mahallia Ward, Amber Neumann and Michael Smith for their extra reckless abandon in the tarantella.

Cast, composer, conductor and choreographer were all on stage for the ovations and applause, recognition for a job more than well done. This is your last chance to see Lubovitch’s Othello, as it is being retired from Joffrey’s active rep. There are nine performances left. You should get your tickets NOW.

Joffrey Ballet presents Lar Lubovitch’s Othello at the Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress Pkwy. through Sunday, May 5. Performance times vary. Tickets are $31-$152; call 800.982.2787 or visit joffrey.org.othello.

Joffrey’s Nutcracker: Clean, Crisp, Classic

Joffrey Ballet dancers Yoshihisa Arai and Jack Thorpe-Baker battle in "the Nutcracker". Photo by Herbert Migdoll.The Joffrey Ballet‘s production of The Nutcracker still sparkles in its silver anniversary. Opening night, Friday, December 7 at the Auditorium Theatre, marked the 25th year for this particular magical tale choreographed by Joffrey co-founders Robert Joffrey and Gerald Arpino and the magic and choreography still hold up today. With beautiful accompaniment by the Chicago Philharmonic, under the direction of Scott Speck, this version of the holiday ballet boasts clean dancing, crisp choreography and classic storytelling.

Joffrey’s Act One is notable for its speed and depth of action, especially the Party Scene. There is a lot going on in that Victorian living room. Too much for one set of eyes to catch it all, but that also speeds the story along and sweeps you Clara’s world, so you’re ready to fight and dream right along with her. Opening night’s casting had Clara and Fritz almost as tall as their parents, a distraction from the illusion of them really being children. That uneasiness was quickly erased by the dancers commitment and enthusiasm to their characters. Caitlin Meighan was delightful, youthful and vibrant as Clara, her rapid bourrée runs full of excitement. Ricardo Santos was obstinate and ornery as Fritz before taking a star turn as the Snow Prince in the Snow Scene at the end of the Act. His lightening quick jumps and spot-on turn sequences dot the fiendishly fast Arpino choreography amid a flurry of snowflakes. Solid dancing from the entire company lets the choreography shine. I know Mr. A. liked things brisk, but the speed of this evening’s performance surely made it the fastest Nutcracker in the Midwest!

Joffrey dancers Dylan Gutierrez and April Daly in "The Nutcracker". Photo by Herbert Migdoll.

Act II transports to us to The Kingdom of Sweets where the dancers took bravuro turns in each variation. Highlights were Amber Neumann as the sassy Spanish Chocolate, the pristinely perfect Marzipan Shepherdesses (Jeraldine Mendoza, Catherine Minor and Jenny Winton) as well as Kara Zimmerman and Elizabeth Hansen as the lead flowers in Waltz. Always a crowd pleaser, the Russian Nougats (Jacqueline Moscicke, Derrick Agnoletti, Yoshihisa Arai and John Mark Giragosian) did not disappoint. Arpino’s Waltz continues to be an all-time favorite for me, however, this year incorporated some costume updates that marred the visual cohesiveness of the dance. The Sugar Plum Fairy (April Daly) and her Cavalier (Dylan Gutierrez) raised the bar with strong, stellar performances. Daly, as fresh and lovely as her month’s namesake, lit the stage with dazzling effervescence, exquisite extensions and beautiful balances. Gutierrez continues to come into his own in lead roles, establishing himself as a solid, sure partner and delivering a clean, commanding variation. These two definitely proved the saying ‘save the best for last’.

The Joffrey Ballet’s The Nutcracker runs through December 27 at the Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress Pkwy. Tickets are $31-$132. Call 800.982.2787 or visit www.ticketmaster.com.

 

CDF12 Artist Spotlight: Joffrey’s Amber Neumann

Joffrey's Amber Neumann & Graham Maverick in William Forsythe's "In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated". Photo by Herbert Migdoll.

On a sunny morning in July, a perky little ray of sunshine walks toward me clad in a yellow sundress.  ”I made this,” she says, referring to the dress, her smile lighting up the sidewalk.  Amber Neumann, 21, has a lot to smile about.  Now entering her third season with the Joffrey Ballet (after 6 weeks off, rehearsals for the 2012-2013 season started yesterday), her list of accomplishments keeps growing.

She’s worked with well-known choreographers like Julia Adam, Yuri Possokhov, Val Caniparoli and Edwaard Liang.  She danced the lead role of Kitri in Possokhov’s Don Quixote to rave reviews after an injury shook up the cast.  She learned the part in a day (“four hours of rehearsal and a dress rehearsal”).  She proved her acting chops last season in Wayne MacGregor’s Infra depicting an emotional breakdown center stage.   She showed fearlessness in William Forsythe’s “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated”, where she explosively danced what is known as the “jeté pas” (her entrance is three ball-to-the-walls jetés across the stage partnered by Graham Maverick).  She recently purchased her first home and is enjoying nesting, gardening and making clothes.  “It’s been the summer of experimenting,” says Neumann.  “It’s been busy.  I just started taking Krav Maga (an Israeli fighting technique).  I took a trip to Canada with my Mom to the Shakespeare Festival in Stratford.  I went to a lot of weddings.”

This season, Neumann is looking forward to learning and performing Kurt Jooss’ The Green Table, Jiri Kylían’s Forgotten Land and is excited to be dancing for the first time at Dance For Life as well as participating again in the Chicago Dancing Festival (CDF).   In last year’s fest, she  performed in George Balanchine’s Stravinsky Violin Concert on the Pritzker Pavilion stage.  This year at CDF, she will be performing Forsythe’s In the Middle in the Chicago Dancing program on Monday, August 20th at the Harris TheaterRB sat down over coffee with Neumann at the end of her summer break.

 Tell me about learning the Forsythe piece.

Working with Glen (Tuggle, répétiteur) was a blast.  He was so much fun, but kept us all focused at the same time, which is not easy.  He had this way of giving us just enough free reign so we could play with the timing and the steps.  There’s a lot of improv, so you could change it up.  You could do something a little different every time.  There’s a certain amount of “ooh, what’s going to happen now?” and that’s always exciting.

And the jeté pas?

There are a lot of arms and things that are really intricate and you have to be really together with your partner.  This is not on your leg.  This is get off of your leg and twist your arms around your head and try not to choke each other.  We had a really good time.  It was hard, but once you get into it, it starts to flow.

Is it difficult to count?

It was at first.  It was really difficult.  There are some parts you absolutely have to count.  If you don’t count, you’re screwed.  It is hard to count unless you really listen and understand the music.  Once you do that, its a solid meter.  If you can find the meter, you’re fine.  There’s the second pirouette section in the back, where everyone is going at a different time…that took us longer than I care to admit for us to get that.  And the sets are minimalist, there aren’t really wings, so you really have to know your counts.  It’s a little bit of flying without a net.

Have you started putting it back together yet?

No. Right when we start back we’ll start putting it back together.  There’s not a lot of time.  Stamina-wise, it’s so incredibly difficult.  It really doesn’t matter if you run and exercise; it’s a different kind of stamina. 

For more information on the Chicago Dancing Festival 2012, click here.

Read more about Amber here.

Bringing the Heat

Joffrey dancers Christine Rocas & Rory Hohenstein in William Forsythe's "In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated". Photo by Herbert Migdoll.

In a pre-show video at opening night of Joffrey Ballet‘s Winter Fire program, artistic director Ashley Wheater says, “This company is eclectic and diverse, the repertory should reflect that”.  The three works presented from international contemporary choreographic stars William Forsythe, Christopher Wheeldon and Wayne McGregor were eclectic, diverse and showed the current company of dancers in a new light.  A big, hot spotlight.  This show reminded me of the Joffrey I fell in love with years ago.  A company that always pushed boundaries with challenging, interesting new works.  A company that made you sit up and ask,”What is happening on stage?”…in a good way.

This program pushed the dancers to a new level, challenging technique and complacency.  They rose to the challenge – they were hot!  The hottest of them all was Rory Hohenstein.  He hasn’t been featured much in his first season with the company (aside from a stand out solo at Dance For Life last August), but wow, keep your eyes on this one.  Last night, he was on fire.  A fierce presence in every piece, Hohenstein showed off his partnering skills, flexibility and attitude with every flick of his wrist, penché pitch and swing of his head.  Paired with Victoria Jaiani in two of the three pieces, he held his own with the dancer that has become the unequivocal star of the company (“All stars/No stars”? I’m not so sure that’s the motto here anymore).

Forsythe’s In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated featured these two in dazzling duets that were so intricate and hyper-extended you wondered how they got through them without being tied in a knot.  Jaiani’s incredible capacity for extension and impossibly thin frame punctuated the dark, downlit stage.  Similar in build and flexibility, Christine Rocas – let’s call them the bendy/flexy twins – showed her stuff alongside a strong cast.  There were some extraordinary things happening on the sidelines, particularly with April Daly, Amber Neumann, Anastacia Holden and Ricardo Santos that unfortunately got lost with so many things going on at once.  Also, the two lead females (Jaiani and Rocas) were supple and strong in the partnering, but seemed timid on their own.  I spotted Chicago Dancing Festival‘s Jay Franke and David Herro in the audience, with Mayor Emanuel and family.  Hint: this would look great on the Pritzker Pavilion stage in August! Yes for the Fest?

Joffrey dancer John Mark Giragosian in Wayne McGregor's "Infra". Photo by Herbert Migdoll.

The LED projections of figures walking displayed above the dancers in Wayne McGregor’s Infra was distracting at first, but became part of the movement theme happening below.  Inspired in part by the 2005 London bombings, McGregor takes the every day action of going to and from work and turns into an emotionally charged romp set to a cyber techno beat by Max Richter.  You could see a hint Forsythe’s influence at work here.  Again, a strong ensemble cast featuring virtuoso turns by all.  Amber Neumann showed her acting chops with a mental melt down center stage.  A large cast of extras walked across the stage sweeping her off with them alluding to the fact that life goes on.  Jaiani and Hohenstein end the work with another eye-popping duet.

Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain was the mid-show palette cleanser offering a softer break from the hard-hitting opening and closing numbers.  The music, Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel (which can make me weepy within the first three notes), was brought to life with accompaniment by Paul James Lewis, Paul Zafer and Carol Lahti.  A stellar cast of Jaiani, Hohenstein, Daly, Matthew Adamczyk, Fabrice Calmels and Valerie Robin added maturity and nuance to the work that was a company premiere in 2010.

Joffrey dancers Victoria Jaiani & Fabrice Calmels in Christopher Wheeldon's "After the Rain". Photo by Herbert Migdoll.

The duet by Jaiani and Calmels, which was stunning last season, was one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen on stage (aside, perhaps, from the Act II pas in Giselle).  What once had a breathtaking romantic feel, like how a young girl dreams her first time in love will be, evolved into a heartbreaking, lifelong love shifting in need.  For me, it took on a she’s-dying-and-he’s-taking-care of-her/Dying Swan vibe.  Whatever the impetus, it works.  As the donor’s rose to their feet in ovation, you could sense the many wallets falling open asking simply “how much?”.

 

Joffrey’s Don Q: Q for Questioning

Derrick Agnoletti & Fabrice Calmels in "Don Quixote". Photo by Herbert Migdoll.

The sets were amazing, the costumes stunning, the integration of video/images imaginative, the score fast and flamboyant, the life-size horse puppet fantastic, the choreography ambitious, the characters lovable, so why am I left with the feeling something was off? Last night’s premiere of  Yuri Possoknov’s version of Don Quixote for the Joffrey Ballet at the Auditorium Theatre had all the elements for a spectacular opening night, but it just didn’t quite get there.  That may be a bit harsh.  It was a wonderful show and sure to be a huge hit with audiences, but some of casting and staging were questionable and at times it seemed more like a full dress run and not up to the bar Joffrey has set for themselves.  The show was held for twenty minutes due to a medical emergency (someone slipped and fell in the lobby), which may have had a negative effect on the dancers.  I should also note that I sat in the third row, which was too close for my taste, and the ballet seemed almost too big for the stage.

Victoria Jaiani as Kitri in "Don Quixote". Photo by Herbert Migdoll.

Let’s start with the good stuff – and there was more than plenty.  First, Victoria Jaiani as Kitri was fantastic as we have come to expect.  Her fiery, flirty interpretation seemed second nature (although she seemed uncharacteristically nervous in parts of Act I) and I assume, growing up in Tbilisi, Georgia, she was practically weened on the part.  Her ridiculous flexibility was on full display particularly in Kitri’s Act I solo with Plisetskaya leaps (named after Maya Plisetskaya who made them famous with the Bolshoi) where she literally kicks the back of her head.  But why was she carrying castanets if she wasn’t playing them?  The Act II wedding pas de deux coda famously has a run of thirty-two fouettes.  Jaiani’s was spot on, even tossing in doubles every third turn in the first half.  From my seat, while watching her turn, I could perfectly see her husband Temur Suluashvili’s face behind her beaming with love and pride.  Jaiani’s partner (hired to replace the injured Miguel Angel Blanco), Cuban guest artist Carlos Quenedit, was charming, charismatic and mui talented, although I kept wondering “who is this guy?”  The program only notes (with an asterisk) that he’s a guest artist.  He was great and would be a lovely addition to the Joffrey family, but why hire a guest artist?

Amber Neumann & Anastacia Holden in "Don Quixote". Photo by Herbert Migdoll.

The other star of the show was the puppet.  Crafted by Von Orthal Puppets, Rocinante, Don Q’s faithful companion was fresh and endearing addition to the cast performed by Shane Urton and Alberto Velazquez.  The creation, nicknamed Otis by the company, only appeared in a few scenes which was a shame.  Free Otis!  More of the horse please.  All of the character parts were perfectly played.  Fabrice Calmels as Don Quixote (dashing, distracted), Derrick Agnoletti as Sancho Panza (delightfully bumbling), Willy Shives as Lorenzo (deliciously daft) and Matthew Adamczyk as Gamache (scene-stealingly silly).  Soloists Amber Neumann and Stacia Holden were stand outs as Kitri’s friends.  The corps — toreadors, seguidillas, dryads and bridesmaids — were outstanding and, aside from Kitri, did most of the dancing.  Two female solo variations beautifully danced by Amber Neumann and Jeraldine Mendoza inserted in the middle of the Act II pas de deux seemed out of place and unnecessary.  Equally perplexing was the need for the character Mercedes, a street dancer (Alexis Polito) who danced in the village with the toreadors.  No offense to Polito who danced a lovely solo amidst daggers ingeniously stuck to the floor with frightening intensity, but I failed to see how her character aided the story line.

Victoria Jaiani & Carlos Quenedit in "Don Quixote". Photo by Herbert Migdoll.

The audience at first seemed timid and unsure of how to react to such a bold and ambitious production.  Case in point:  Kitri and Basilio do these amazing one-handed presage lifts about six times.  The first four are done in pairs and in quick succession separated by supported pirouettes.  Fair enough, the lift might not have been held long enough for them to really see what was going on.  The second two are held for a sustained period of time – long enough for Jaiani to hold, look at audience and shake her tambourine before coming down – with the orchestra (Chicago Sinfonietta) holding for effect.  The first lift…nothin’.  The second, held long enough for Quenedit to carry her  – with one hand! -  across the entire stage.  I laughed out loud before obnoxiously clapping, wondering what it was going to take to get these people going.  Luckily, they came around and were clapping to the music enthusiastically during the finale.  Over all, it was a tremendous undertaking that, once a few kinks are figured out (particularly the long, awkward “pause” in Act II), will delight for the entire two week run.  As Artistic Director Ashley Wheater said last week, “I think the company will grow into it.”  I think they will and hope Don Q will be in Joffrey’s rep for a long, long time.