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’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.

Break

RB took a little time off after the Chicago Dancing Festival (CDF), but now I’m back and ready to go!  Coming up: interviews/previews with Luna Negra (Veronica Guadalupe), Inaside Chicago Dance (Mary Williams), Joffrey Ballet (Michael Smith), Hubbard Street (David Schultz) , Smuin Ballet (Jonathan David Dummar) and even a little chat with Twyla Tharp!

Keep a look out for changes/additions to the blog in the coming weeks, but in the meantime, here are some beautiful pics from CDF finale by the gorgeous and gracious mama-to-be Cheryl Mann.

Michelle Fleet and the Paul Taylor Dance Co in "Esplanade".

NYC Ballet dancers Tiler Peck & Gonzalo Garcia in "Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux".

Martha Graham dancer Xiaochuan Xie in "Diversion of Angels".

Joffrey's Temur Suluashvili & Victoria Jaiani in "Stravinsky Violin Concerto".

CDF11 Celebration of Dance

River North Dance Chicago performing "Nine Person Precision Ball Passing". Photo by Cheryl Mann.

Saturday night was beautiful.  The weather, the venue, the dancing.  The perfect night to hold an outdoor, free dance concert for the city of Chicago.  At Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park, Mayor Emanuel took the stage to introduce the final night of the Chicago Dancing Festival (CDF) and vowed to take the now five-day fest up to six days of free dance events next year.  Dubbed a Celebration of Dance, the entire evening was just that.  Some of the best dancers in the country came together to dance works by Kylían, Balanchine, Graham and Taylor for the estimated 10,000-12,000 people in attendance.  Even the fabulous Gehry-designed concert venue could not compete with what was happening on the stage.

Ballet West, under the direction of former Joffrey dancer and Ballet Master Adam Sklute, opened the show with Jirí Kylían’s Sinfonietta.  This troupe won a Chicago following last year when they performed Balanchine’s Serenade at CDF.  Program notes declare Sinfonietta is “a celebration of our earthly life” and with joyous jetés and rousing score, it proved to be a pitch-perfect opener for our celebration.  A black back drop with sparkling lights like stars came clearly into focus when the piece finished just as the sun set and the stars overhead came out.  Timing is everything.  The woman sitting next to me literally jumped out of her seat in excitement as the piece ended.  She seemed embarrassed at first until she realized she wasn’t alone.  This was the first of many mini standing ovations of the evening (most of which were started by the Hubbard Street dancers in the crowd).  River North Dance Chicago (RNDC) followed with Charles Moulton’s post-modern Nine Person Precision Ball Passing.  For the third time this week, RNDC took their places on three tiers to perform the brain-teasing work which has seven minutes of fast ball exchanges in every possible configuration.  It is clear that the dancers have it embedded to memory as they performed it perfectly, even throwing in some sassy faces and attitude.  It’s a fun work that drew giggles and appreciation.  Now if I could only get that pinball-synth score out of my head.

Joffrey Ballet performed George Balanchine’s difficult and folksy ballet Stravinsky Violin Concerto.  The large group piece features two duets (Victoria Jaiani and Temur Suluashvili, Valerie Robin and Fabrice Calmels) to arias mixed in with all male and all female sections.  This work is at times difficult for me (why is she doing inside/out back bends?  why are they making a thumbs up sign and waving at each other?), but it was performed with flair and verve.  With fire engine sirens in the background, Joffrey showed the hometown crowd what it’s made of – strong technique, charisma and love.  (Shout out to Derrick Agnoletti for his fierce pas de chats!) Martha Graham Dance Company took the stage next in Diversion of Angels.  Graham’s trademark pitches and contractions were staples, but with lyrical passes and beautiful lifts mixed in.  Carrie Ellmore-Tallitsch, Ben Schultz and the gorgeous Xiaochuan Xie were stand outs.

Principal dancers Tiler Peck and Gonzalo Garcia from the New York City Ballet (NYCB) wowed the crowd with a stunning performance of Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky Pas De Deux.  The virtuoso duet showed the amazing technique, performing chops and musicality of the dancers.  Peck, aside from one slight bobble en pointe, was impeccable.  Her pointe work, her presence, her extensions, her turns, her playfulness all came together at warp speed.   I felt like a little girl seeing something so amazing that it changed my life.  (Mommy, I want to be a ballerina!)  I had goosebumps and yes, I was one of the many shouted bravo during bows.  The excitement carried over to the final piece.  The crowd was ready and  Paul Taylor Dance Company did not disappoint.  Taylor’s Esplanade set to Bach concertos was original inspired by a woman running to catch a bus.  The piece incorporates common human gestures with innovative partnering (a promenade with a woman standing on the man’s stomach), ridiculously fast footwork (Michelle Fleet’s solo was lightening fast!), running passes and a little romance.  The dancers were joyful with smiles on their faces as if they were having the time of their collective lives.  The audience was too.  *Insert full standing ovation here.

Every year, a random bird makes an appearance in the show, flying about the stage above the dancers as if it is so caught up in the moment that it wants to be part of the performance.   I imagine much of the audience felt exactly the same way.  Just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, it did.  Multiple times.  Every day the festival got better and better and I can honestly say (although I didn’t “get” some pieces) I enjoyed watching every single dance.  Lar Lubovitch, Jay Franke and Evin Eubanks deserve great thanks and kudos for pulling off this hugely successful dance festival.  I wonder how they’re going to top it next year.

CDF11 Masters

Hubbard Street's Jesse Bechard & Ana Lopez in "Petite Mort". Photo by Cheryl Mann.

The Chicago Dancing Festival (CDF) Masters program last night at the Auditorium Theatre was a spectacular night of dance.  The packed house was jazzed and ready for a great show giving Mayor Emanuel (who was in attendance again this evening) thunderous applause for just being there.  It doesn’t hurt that he’s also the city’s number one dance advocate and biggest fan.  The show opened with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago (HSDC) performing Jirí Kylían’s Petite Mort (1991), a gorgeous work to two Mozart piano concertos that has been in their rep since 2000.  Between the music, the choreography and the beautiful dancers, it really doesn’t get any better than this.  (I told Artistic Director Glenn Edgerton at intermission that I was getting tired of trying to find new words to describe HSDC and that I might just have to make something up.  Stellatasticerifficabulous?  Nah, that’s harder to say – and type – than Suluashvili!) Anyway, the bar had been set.

River North Dance Chicago in "Nine Person Precision Ball Passing". Photo by Cheryl Mann.

River North Dance Chicago (RNDC) followed with Charles Moulton’s Nine Person Precision Ball Passing (1980) which they performed earlier in the week at the opening gala.   On Monday, RNDC performed it flawlessly, but two balls during the seven-minute piece “got away” drawing giggles from the audience.  Moulton told me last week that “mistakes are part of it” and that they are inevitable.  With extra balls hidden in their costumes, the number kept pace and you wouldn’t know something happened except for those darn balls rolling on the stage.  I liked that they dropped a ball.  It shows they are human (‘cuz some of the things they can do really make you wonder) and it showed their professionalism and focus when they kept on going.  Act I ended with Victoria Jaiani and Temur Suluashvili from Joffrey Ballet dancing the Act II pas de

Joffrey's Victoria Jaiani & Temur Suluashvili in Act II pas from "Giselle". Photo by Cheryl Mann.

deux (1841) from Giselle.  Please note: I love the Joffrey and Giselle is my favorite ballet (yes, I named my dog Giselle), so it hurts me to say that this was the weakest number in the show.  Jaiani was gorgeous, as usual, but the tempo of the audio track was off.  It was too fast when it should’ve been slow to show off her ridiculous extensions and slowed down during the filler parts.  Plus, you really need to understand the relationship of the characters to fully appreciate what is happening on stage.  They would’ve been better served doing a bravura pas from Don Quixote or Le Corsaire or even the White Swan pas they performed earlier in the week.

Martha Graham Dance Co's Carrie Ellmore-Tallitsch, Tadej Brdnik & Mariya Dashkina Maddux in "Embattled Garden". Photo by Cheryl Mann.

The second act began with the Martha Graham Dance Company in Embattled Garden (1958).  I loved it!  Even though it was choreographed 53 years ago, the work holds up.  The sets by Isamu Noguchi looked like they were from Beetlejuice. The basic, colorful costumes and strict technique all blended into a dramatic story of biblical seduction.  High drama!  Artistic Director Janet Eilber came out before the piece to set up the plot and let us know what we were going to see.  Smart move.  Maybe this would’ve helped with the Giselle pas.  The Eve character’s (danced by Mariya Dashkina Maddux) hair was a character unto itself, whipping violently back and forth to the music as if it had its own choreography.  The Masters program closed with

Lar Lubovitch Dance Co in "The Legend of Ten". Photo by Cheryl Mann.

Lar Lubovitch Dance Company in The Legend of Ten.  Choreographed by CDF co-founder Lar Lubovitch in 2010, the piece for – you guessed it – ten dancers was wonderful.  Set to two movements from Brahms’ Quintet for Piano and Strings in F Minor, Opus 34, Legend showed that Lubovitch is a master with not only movement, but music.  The seamless flow of the dancers’ energy was hypnotic.  It could literally lull you into a stupor, but then you would miss the quick little solo turns by each dancer and the smart, luscious partnering by Jenna Fakhoury and Reid Bartelme.

The main thing I’ve noticed in this week of dance so far is the appreciation and appetite for dance in Chicago. The audiences have been attentive and generous and eager for more.  That’s my kind of town!

CDF Opening Gala

Joffrey Ballet's Victoria Jaiani & Temur Suluashvili in White Swan pas. Photo by Cheryl Mann.

Last night was the opening night gala kicking off the fifth year of the Chicago Dancing Festival (CDF). A short 5-piece program on the MCA Stage was followed by cocktails, a buffet with three ballroom dance couples interspersed upstairs at Puck’s Restaurant and outside on the terrace.  The $250-a-head evening was co-chaired by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who stayed to mingle after the show along with his wife and daughter.  A few short speeches preceded the performance. MCA Director of Performance Programs Peter Taub opened the fest saying, “We are here to celebrate the best of dance from across the country”.  CDF co-founder Jay Franke gave some impressive stats including that in the past five years the festival has presented over 35 companies and over 400 dancers and proudly announced that this year CDF sold out approximately 10,000 seats for this week’s performances.  Franke turned over the mic to Mayor Emanuel, who celebrated his 100th day in office by attending the gala.  The Mayor, a former dancer and huge fan, declared that he wants to double the size of the fest and make sure Chicago is the dance destination for the entire country. He added there are 19 companies performing this week to an estimated 19,000 audience members.  Co-founder Lar Lubovitch said, “One cannot describe dance in words, no matter how eloquent,” but then went on to read the most eloquent essay (written by him) on duets, five of which we were about to see.

HSDC's Penny Saunders & Alejandro Cerrudo in Following the Subtle Current Upstream. Photo by Cheryl Mann.

The program of duets featured choreography from 1895 to present and while they represented divergent styles, there was a through-line of choreographic evolution.  A pristine classical white ballet to a fluid neoclassical ballet with a contemporary twist.  An emotive classic modern offering to a postmodern minimal feat.  Then an avant garde performance art work that evoked musical and choreographic themes from the first duet.  A mini-history of dance in 60 minutes or less…sort of.  Joffrey Ballet‘s husband and wife team, Victoria Jaiani and Temur Suluashvili began with Lev Ivanov’s traditional White Swan pas (1895) from Swan Lake.  On a small, bare stage it is difficult to bring the audience into the magical place that is needed for the dance, but what it lacked in mood and setting was made up for by technique.  Jaiani’s extraordinary extensions and limberness were on full display.  (I’m fairly certain her back is made of a flexible pipe cleaner.)  Just as they disappeared into the wings, Hubbard Street‘s (HSDC) Penny Saunders and Alejandro Cerrudo oozed onto the stage in an excerpt from Alonzo King’s Following the Subtle Current Upstream (2000).  While similar to the previous pas in technique, flexibility and master partnering (and similar promenades in penché), this duet was the opposite in feel.  Fluid, continuous and rich.

Martha Graham's Xiaochuan Xie & Tadej Brdnik in "Snow on the Mesa". Photo by Cheryl Mann.

An excerpt from *Robert Wilsons Snow on the Mesa (1995) brought a display of control and drama with Martha Graham Dance Company dancers Xiaochuan Xie and Tadej Brdnik’s gorgeous interpretation.  Strong, yet delicate with minimal, but heartbreaking gestures, I found myself holding my breath through the piece.  The all white costuming and loving touches again reminded me of the first duet.  Brian Brooks Moving Company changed things up with a male duet titled MOTOR (2010).  Clad only in black briefs, Brooks and David Scarantino embarked on a thigh-killing, synchronized chugging spree.  Set to a driving beat with ominous overtones, MOTOR had the men hopping, jumping and chugging, foward, backward, in changing formations around the stage.  It was an exercise in stamina and focus.  There were more than a few moments, however, that took me back to the swan theme.  Precise chugs in attitude devánt (four cignets) and chugs in fondue arabesque (white swan corps).  A stripped down off-kilter Swan Lake.

The final piece Compression Piece (Swan Lake) was a commission by Walter Dundervill , created specifically for CDF this year.  If the previous piece was off-kilter, this was Swan Lake on crack!  Dundervill (who Lubovitch said could be ” a lunatic”), along with partner Jennifer Kjos, creates a white landscape of distorted beauty in his choreography (warped fouetté turns and bourré sequences), sets (a fabric installation that serves as back drop and eventually part of the choreography) and costumes (interchangeable pieces – they changed on and off stage – layered from baroque to bridal).  The soundscape featured swan riffs from Tchaikovsky and Saint-Saëns, but funked it up with Diana Ross and Sonic Youth.  This world premiere proved that the black swan has nothing on the white swan when it comes to crazy (in a good way).

Maybe I have Swan Lake on the brain (a strain of avian flu?), but I caught a definite thread of similarity in the pieces.  As if all of the works were distilled from choreography from 120 years ago and ended up being all of these unique moments on stage…and maybe they were.  Example:  Look at the photos on this page.  From very different styles and eras, yet all are an interpretation of a standard supported arabesque.  Technical issues prevented Faye Driscoll from performing on the program as scheduled, but I’m looking forward to seeing it later in the week at the MCA Moves program to see how it would’ve fit into this program.  As it was presented last evening, it was a testament to the brilliant artistic direction of Lubovitch and Franke.

*This has been updated.   I originally had the piece choreographed by Martha Graham.  Oops!