Joffrey Dances La Bayadère (aka Snakes at the Ballet)

Joffrey Ballet goes Bollywood in "La Bayadere". Photo by Christopher Duggan.

This Wednesday the Joffrey Ballet* begins a 10-performance run of Stanton Welch’s La Bayadère: The Temple Dancer at the Auditorium Theatre. Welch’s version, originally choreographed for Houston Ballet in 2010, whittles down the three-plus hour original tale, keeping the story of love, jealousy and revenge flowing, while adding in more dancing. He’s left the famous “Kingdom of the Shades” scene, where 26 ballerinas in white tutus enter the stage performing synchronized arabesques, in tact. Oh, and there are live snakes.

You read that right. Snakes. Real ones. Live, on stage. SNAKES! (Can someone please tell me what happens while they are on stage, because my eyes will be shut as I silently shriek to myself.) Real snakes were used on a photo shoot in Houston to promote the revamp of the 19th classic. The dancers “really got into it” and ended up on the floor with 30 snakes slithering over them – ew – so Welch thought, “We have to use it!” A snake handler from The Traveling World of Reptiles (you’ll have to look up their site on your own…can’t do it) will be part of the production with four of his serpent friends.

The story follows Niiya, a temple dancer, and a love quartet with a secret love, a princess and a betrothed priest. The drama heightens with dancing gods and a little help from a hookah pipe. Solor, Nikiya’s love interest tends a broken heart by smoking opium and enters a dreamlike state. The is where the “Shades” come in. Welch describes them as “a stream of smoke coming down from heaven, where Nikiya appears in a cloud”. This scene has been seen as a stand-alone at galas around the world and is breathtaking.

Considering Welch himself has never performed the ballet, why La Bayadère? “It’s historic and important,” said Welch when I stopped by Joffrey Tower to chat and watch rehearsal earlier this month. “It has strong women characters. There are no victims and I love that the two women fight each other.” He’s replaced a lot of the pantomime – and there was a lot – with dancing and added more dancing for the men. “It’s all dance, less mime,” Welch said. Artistic Director Ashley Wheater agrees. “It’s real dancing people, not cardboard cut outs.” Wheater is excited to have his dancers perform such a staple. “It’s strictly classical,” he said. “It’s hard…a kind of a show-us-everything-you’ve learned.”

Joffrey Ballet presents La Bayadère: The Temple Dancer at the Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress Pkwy., Wednesday, Oct. 16 – Sunday, Oct. 27. Performance times vary. Tickets are $31-$152; call 800.982.2787 or online at ticket master.com. 

*La Bayadère is the last time RB will be covering Joffrey for the blog. At the end of the month, I’m joining the Joffrey Marketing Team full-time. You can follow my coverage of them, in an official capacity, on their website, JPointe blog and on social media.

CDF13 Sneak Peek: Alexander Ekman’s “Episode 31″

Choreographer Alexander Ekman. Photo by Urban Joren.

I stopped by to watch rehearsal earlier this month as the Joffrey Ballet gets ready for the Chicago premiere of Alexander Ekman‘s Episode 31 this week at the Chicago Dancing Festival (CDF). A CDF13 commission, the work was originally created for students at the Juilliard School in 2011 and incorporates a multi media/video element at the beginning of the piece. The young Swedish choreographer also had a commissioned work in last year’s festival. Giordano Dance Chicago performed his humorous relationship duet Two Becomes Three in CDF12 and will perform it again at CDF13.

On a sunny Friday afternoon, 28 Joffrey dancers headed out to film the into video and danced in the street, on the Brown line, across the Clark Street bridge, on the steps of the Vietnam Memorial Park under Wacker, under the “Bean” and in Crown Fountain. Clapping, stomping and yelling accompanied the choreography and caught a number of people off guard. A group of students gave the dancers an impromptu cheer to thank them and one woman waiting for her train said, “It’s better than the muggers on the Red Line”. Gotta love Chicagoans.

A few weeks later, back in the studio, the dancers prepped for a run-thru of Episode 31. The studio had random props (an empty lamp stand, tennis balls, a wooden box) and strips of marley strewn about the floor. I asked one dancer, “What’s this all about?” His reply, “Joffrey being Hubbard Street.” While it might not be in Hubbard’s rep, this piece is way more their style than what you normally see from the Joffrey. It’s outside their comfort zone. For some, I’d say way out. One girl stays in pointe shoes, randomly bourree-ing throughout the chaos. Most are in jazz shoes. One dancer comes out and does a quick, intense tap solo. Two men perform a loosely balletic, post-modern duet while a poem is read. The dancers drop suddenly to the floor and convulse like they are being electrocuted (frying bacon, anyone?), while a lone dancer slowly circles the stage, taking it all in.

Joffrey dancers in Crown Fountain at Millennium Park. Photo courtesy of The Joffrey Ballet.

Oh, and there is some coughing and sneezing. Yeah, not your typical Joffrey. Artistic Director Ashley Wheater is embracing the difference and think it will only enhance their artistry. “The way have to move in 31, the way they have to use their spine to instigate the movement…if they would take that into classical ballet, then ballet becomes that much more of an interesting, organic form as opposed to being two-dimensional and a little bit flat” he said. “It will be very fun to see how people respond to it.”

Episode 31 will also appear in Joffrey’s Winter program next February at the Auditorium Theatre.

The Joffrey Ballet performs Alexander Ekman’s “Episode 31″ at the Chicago Dancing Festival on Thursday, Aug. 22 at 7:30 pm at the Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress Pkwy. The performance is SOLD OUT, but any available stand-by tickets will be released at 7:15 pm.

For more information on the Chicago Dancing Festival, visit www.chicagodancingfestival.com.

 

Cloud Gate Presser with Lin Hwai-min

Cloud Gate dancer WU Chun-hsien in "Songs of the Wanderers". Photo by YU Hui-hung.

Tuesday I attended a Press/VIP launch for the upcoming 2014 Chicago performances of Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan, their sixth appearance in Chicago. The event was held on stage at the iconic Auditorium Theatre (fantastic views!) mostly for members of the Chicago Asian Pacific American Press, but RB and fellow dance writer Lauren Warnecke* (artintercepts.org) claimed seats in the back row and listened in. Many thanks to Jill Chukerman for the invite.

Actor Marc Rita served as Emcee and introduced an array of presenter/speakers before getting to the main purpose of the presser – hearing Founder and Artistic Director of Cloud Gate Lin Hwai-min speak. Lin, a small and quiet man, began by saying he sometimes thinks being a dancer/choreographer is a wrong choice and that, as the creator of work, if people like it, you are “punished” by having to watch it over and over. He went on to say that Songs of the Wanderers (the work being presented next March) is the exception – even after 19 years. “I’ve seen it thousands of times,” said Lin. “I love to see it, not every night, but it’s special.”

The work has a global flavor being inspired by Asian religions, German writing, set to Georgian folk music and performed in/with 3.5 tons of golden Taiwanese rice. “These performing rice are very seasoned,” quipped Lin. He also told of a trip he took where he saw people drinking water downstream from where cremated bodies were being thrown in – “Isn’t that life itself?” – and finding peace in a sunbeam under a tree. The trip changed his life and inspired the work, which is about meditation. “The work, it came out of me like a river.”

Lin said his dancers were mad when he told them the new work was about meditation. “I forced them to sit with their eyes closed,” he said. “The want to jump and turn.” He says if you look close when they are performing Songs, you can see that most of the time, their eyes are closed “drawing the audience onto the stage instead of projecting out”. The dancers must meditate before going on stage. “Meditation is the key. You have to be there.”

I had to run to work, so missed the lunch catered by Vora. I heard it was delicious.

*Read Warnecke’s take on the event here.

Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan performs Songs of the Wanderers presented by The Dance Center of Columbia College, The Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University and The Joffrey Ballet, Friday, March 14, 2014 at 7:30 pm and Sunday, March 16, 2014 at 3 pm. Tickets are $25-$68; call 800-982-2787 or visit www.auditoriumtheatre.org.

Joffrey Ballet: American Legends preview

Joffrey dancers Jeraldine Mendoza & Dylan Gutierrez. Photo by Dave Frieddman.

Tomorrow night begins Joffrey Ballet‘s two-week run of American Legends at the Auditorium Theatre. Rehearsals were in full swing last Friday when I stopped by the studios for a peek. Artistic Director Ashley Wheater and Ballet Master Nicolas Blanc were fine-tuning sections of Jerome Robbins’ Interplay in one studio, while Crista Villella (daughter of Edward Villella, founding director of Miami City Ballet) coached two couples in Twyla Tharp’s Nine Sinatra Songs down the hall. Wheater discusses an awkward prep for a double tour to the knee with dancer John Mark Giragosian before running a killer fouette section multiple times. Villella focuses on tricky handholds in difficult lifts (it’s Twyla, ain’t nothing going to be easy) to the sounds of Sinatra’s theme song My Way.

Robbins’ 1945 work Interplay is a fun, youthful prelude to his masterpiece West Side Story that has major classical ballet moves mixed with cartwheels. Tharp’s ode to ‘Ole Blue Eyes is a series of duets in various stages of romance with costumes by Oscar de la Renta. All American legends. The Chicago premiere of Son of Chamber Symphony by Houston Ballet Artistic Director Stanton Welch (Australian-born, but perhaps an American legend in the making?) takes classic ballet to a new place with deconstructed costumes made to look like inside-out tutus. (I’ve heard they are a bitch to partner in.)  Set all of this to live music by the Chicago Philharmonic, add in a romantic, mystical pas, and you have the makings for a lovely Valentine-timed show.

On opening night dancers Jeraldine Mendoza (21) and Dylan Gutierrez (23), partners on and off stage, have the privilege of dancing Joffrey co-founder Gerald Arpino’s 1962 romantic pas de deux Sea Shadow in honor of what would be his 90th birthday. The duet feels like a rite of passage for the young couple who are quickly rising stars. Mendoza made heads turn in Wayne McGregor’s Infra last season and gained notoriety by winning a scholarship from the Leonore Annenberg Fellowship Fund. Gutierrez made a name for himself stepping in for an injured dancer in Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux for last season’s gala and as “Basilio” in Don Q. He solidified his stature (pun intended, he’s tall!) as a strong Cavalier for opening night of The Nutcracker this season. The two don’t normally dance together and are excited about this opportunity.

The 12-minute pas tells an Ondine-esque story of a man on a beach that falls in love with the idea of a perfect woman. Is she a shadow of the sea? Is she real? Mendoza thinks she’s something more. “I interpret it as I’m a mermaid,” she said. “She’s this mysterious creature that he’s so interested in.” Gutierrez’s take is a little different. “She’s like a fantasy,” he said. “She’s seducing him, but she doesn’t know how. She has as much interest in him as he has in her.” They admit some of the lifts and choreography are difficult, but they are ready for the challenge. In fact, they welcome it. “I think Ashley sees in both of us that we’re hungry and willing to dance,” said Mendoza. “I just love dancing and I want him to totally trust in me.” Gutierrez adds, “We’re people that when the opportunity presents itself, we don’t back away. Every role we’ve gotten, we’ve earned, even though they’ve come quickly. That’s just circumstance. It’s what you do with the shot when you get it. We’ve always delivered.”

The two have dated for over a year and admit that knowing each other so well makes a difference when dancing together and they make an effort to keep a certain distance emotionally on stage. Will falling in love in front of a large audience be a problem? “It’s easy,” said Gutierrez. “I already love her at the beginning of the ballet.”

Gutierrez, with the help of Mendoza (and friend Ruben Harris), started a movement called Young + Cultured. You can follow them on Twitter – @DylanthaVillain, @jeraldineeeee #YoungandCultured.

Joffrey Ballet presents American Legends at the Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress Pkwy., Wednesday, Feb. 13 – Sunday, Feb. 24. Performance times vary. Tickets are $31-$152. Call 800.982.2787 or visit ticketmaster.com.


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.

 

Joffrey Sneak Peek: The Green Table

Kurt Jooss' "The Green Table". Photo by Herbert Migdoll.

This Wednesday, The Joffrey Ballet presents its fall program at The Auditorium Theatre (through Sunday, October 28). Human Landscapes delves into the human spirit with offerings from three distinctively different choreographic voices from three different eras. James Kudelka’s Pretty BALLET was created for the Joffrey dancers in 2010, Jirí Kylián’s Forgotten Land in 1981 and Kurt Jooss’ anti-war ballet, The Green Table, was created  in 1932. While the first two show how ballet has grown in the contemporary realm in recent decades, the latter strips ballet down to the bare essentials.

 Kudelka has the dancers pushing limits of endurance and questioning the necessary beauty of ballet (much of Pretty BALLET isn’t traditionally pretty), while Kylián challenges dancers to push past safe classical style and to go for moves that are off-center. Jooss uses simple steps and gestures to create strong, human feelings. Artistic Director Ashley Wheater loves the juxtaposition of the three works and says the evening will take you on an emotional journey.

I spoke with Wheater and Jeanette Vondersaar, who is here working with the dancers and setting The Green Table: A Dance of Death in Eight Scenes at Joffrey Tower in late September. Vondersaar was a principal dancer with the Dutch National Ballet in Amsterdam for 21 years and has been restaging The Green Table (originally assisting Jooss’ oldest daughter Anna Markard) since 1995. The Joffrey has included Table in its repertoire since 1967. “I actually saw that performance in ’67 in New York,” said Vondersaar. “I was a trainee with the Harkness School for Ballet Arts. It impressed in my mind, especially the role of ‘Death’. I’ll never forget that.”

What is it about this ballet? Was it something no one had seen before?

AW: It goes back to the danse macabre. You go back culturally to how death…what’s the role it plays in our lives?

JV: It’s inevitable.

AW: It is. It doesn’t matter, you can be the richest person in the world, but we all have to go.

JV: Kurt Jooss was inspired by the medieval dances of death. How he (Death) took those victims from different walks of life and ages. He was fascinated with how he took victims, sometimes violently and sometimes more compassionately. At that time it was between two world wars and he was against the war and what happens after to the people who have suffered from the war. It shows that too. It depicts the whole story.

AW: It was very clear that even though the first World War was over that there was another war looming. And I think if you look at history, there’s always another war.

JV: It’s very relevant. The table scene is the diplomats and the politicians who decide to go to war, but they don’t participate themselves. But at the end, it repeats as if nothing happened, so it’s looming. They don’t learn anything from what happened and a lot of them don’t care.

AW: I would say that The Green Table is such an important piece of work. It has a very clear point of view and it’s not apologetic, yet it’s got so much clarity around it. It’s a very clear statement.

JV: It’s an anti-war statement.

Stylistically, what is different about this ballet?

JV: It’s based on classical ballet. In classical ballet you have a breath or an uplift before a movement and in his movements, they go direct with no preparation. It’s right to the point. The most simple movements…even just the focus of how you look using your eyes. Or your hands and how you open them. If you have your fingers bent, it changes the whole feeling of this openness and this reaching with an open hand an an open heart. This is the kind of thing he developed. It’s so simple and yet so beautiful in its simplicity.

AW: People try to say it’s German Expressionism. I think it’s expressive in that it’s choreographed. He has expressed everything about each character and it’s all done through movement. Movement that’s not complicated. It’s hard to do, but it’s not complicated. There’s no flourish. It is really condensing an emotion to a very straight-forward level.

JV: And within that shows the character.

The Joffrey Ballet presents Human Landscapes at the Auditorium Theatre at Roosevelt University, 50 E. Congress Pkwy., Wednesday, October 17 through Sunday, October 28 (dates and times vary). Tickets are $31 to $152. Call 800.982.2787 or visit ticketmaster.com

 

She’s a winner!

Joffrey Ballet's Jeraldine Mendoza & Mauro Villanueva in Edwaard Liang's "Age of Innocence". Photo by Herbert Migdoll.

It was announced last week that Joffrey Ballet dancer Jeraldine Mendoza has been awarded a $50,000 grant from the Leonore Annenberg Fellowhsip Fund.  Mendoza, 20, is the first performing artist in Chicago to receive this award. Originally from San Francisco, CA, she trained from an early age under the tutelage of Galina Alexandrova at the City Ballet School and was the first American female dancer to graduate from the Bolshoi Ballet Academy (now the Moscow State Academy of Choreography).

Mendoza, in her first season with the Joffrey, made an impression with her break out performances in Wayne McGregor’s Infra and a duet in Edwaard Liang’s Age of Innocence.  We chatted Friday evening via text as she was wrapping up rehearsals for Vaslav Nijinsky’s  Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring) and a world premiere by Stanton Welch at Joffrey Tower.  It’s my first texterview!

Tell me how you got the award.  Did you have to apply? Did someone nominate you?

CCC (Christoper Clinton Conway, Executive Director) and Ashley (Wheater, Artistic Director) nominated me and, I think, sent in a letter of recommendation, along with my application, which included a bio, photos, a video of me dancing and a three-page essay explaining how it would benefit my career and future goals.

What does wining this mean for you – for your career?

Winning this award is a true honor and I feel a great amount of flattery.  To be given something like this by my first professional company and at a young age is amazing and I’m grateful!  For my career? It will help me improve my dancing both in technique and expressiveness.  There is still yet so much to more to learn and this grant will allow me to do so.  Plus, it looks really great on my resume!

What are your career goals (companies, dream roles)?

My career goal is to soon be a lead in a prestigious classical or contemporary ballet.  The Joffrey hopes to do “Romeo and Juliet” in the very near future and it would be amazing to be cast as Juliet.  But my absolute dream, dream role is Kitri in “Don Quixote”, which was my first professional program here at the Joffrey and where I was also cast to do Queen of the Dryads…so, almost getting the lead!  There’s something about that music and ballet that screams classics, and I love the classical ballet classics.

What are you going to do with $50K?

With this amazing grant, I plan on traveling this summer.  I plan on going back to San Francisco for two weeks and take classes with my teacher Galina Alexandrova.  Then, I plan on flying to Moscow/St. Petersburg to take some classes there and watch some performances, also try to find out more about possibly taking some courses of how to become a ballet teacher and achieve a teacher’s degree from the Bolshoi Ballet Academy.  Then, I’ll head to London, where I will request from Freed to customize a pointe shoe for me.  I can’t wait for my adventures!

Congratulations to Jeraldine for this well-deserved award.  Perhaps there is a Juliet in her future?

Spring Desire Affinity Night

I’m excited to announce that three weeks from today, Wednesday, May 2nd, RB is partnering with the fabulous Catherine Tully of 4dancers and the Joffrey Ballet for an exclusive event at Joffrey Tower.  Spring Desire Affinity Night is a chance for you to see live excerpts from the Spring Desire program, listen to a Q&A about the show with Joffrey Artistic Director Ashley Wheater and stay for FREE cocktails and hors d’ouervres.  This is the perfect chance to get an insiders view of the beautiful studios and mingle with some of the finest artists in our city.  Bring a friend that’s never seen ballet before and show them what they’ve been missing.

Attendees will receive 50% off tickets* to the final weekend of Spring Desire at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University.
*Offer not valid on previously purchased tickets.  (Please note: attendees are NOT required to purchase tickets.)

Here are the deets:

Wednesday, May 2
5:45 pm Registration
6:00 pm Program and Q&A
7:00 pm Cocktails and Hors d’ouevres

Joffrey Tower
10 East Randolph Street, Chicago

World-class dancing on a week night, inside scoop on the creative process and don’t forget – this is a FREE event!  Make your reservation now.  I hope to see you there.

RSVP by Wednesday, April 25 – Please include your name and number of attendees.  Email affinity@joffrey.org or call 312-784-4640

 

A Little Bit of Color

Dancer Gal Mahzari. Photo by Herbert Migdoll.

I guess there really isn’t a good time during the height of the dance season to leave town, so my taking a road trip this weekend lends to missing some great shows (my apologies to all).  Gus Giordano Dance Chicago is at the Harris Theater, the Dance Center has a shared bill with Space/Movement Project, Rachel Damon/Synapse Arts and Erica Mott, and Same Planet Different World celebrate turning 15! at the Victory Gardens Theater.  However, there is another show happening this Sunday, March 11th, that I hope gets a good audience too.

The Joffrey Academy of Dance presents the Choreographers of Color Award winners works at the Harris with a 4 p.m. show titled Winning Works.  This is the second year for the contest that highlights the work of young, minority choreographers.  The three winners are Carlos dos Santos, Jr., Ray Mercer and Bennyroyce Royon.  Each winner received a $2,500 stipend, 30 rehearsal hours and the chance to work with Joffrey Ballet Artistic Director Ashley Wheater and Academy Directors Alexei Kremnev and Anna Reznik.

Here are the deets – hope you can make it!

Tickets for the Winning Works: Choreographers of Color Award 2012 at the Harris Theater are $15 in advance and $18 at the door, available in advance by calling the Harris Theater Box Office at 312-334-7777 or online at www.harristheaterchicago.org.

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?”.