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.

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 bourr?e 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.