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.

CDF13 Recap

Joffrey's Victoria Jaiani and Fabrice Calmels in
Tamako Miyazaki and Brooklyn Mack in
Giordano Dance Chicago in
Chicago Human Rhythm Project in
Brooklyn Mack and Tamako Miyazaki in
Hubbard Street Dance Chicago in
Joffrey Ballet in
Joffrey Ballet in
Joffrey Ballet in
Joffrey Ballet in
Joffrey Ballet in
Philadanco in
Hubbard Street's Johnny McMillan and Alice Klock in
Brian Brooks in
Chicago Human Rhythm Project in
 
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Last week Chicagoans were treated to five free dance concerts courtesy of the 2013 Chicago Dancing Festival (CDF). For the third year, I was one of CDF’s official bloggers covering the performances. Here’s a recap of the events as well as some awesome performance photos by the lovely Cheryl Mann*.

The Harris at 10! Anniversary Special at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance.

Solitaire – A Game of Dance at the Museum of Contemporary Art/MCA Stage.

Dancing in Chicago at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University.

Celebration of Dance at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park.

Huge THANKS to Lar Lubovitch, Jay Franke, David Herro, Evin Eubanks, The Silverman Group, venues, sponsors and all the artists who shared their beauty and talent. It was another great fest packed full of amazing performances. It is one of my favorite, most exciting, exhausting and inspiring week of the year. I’m looking forward to seeing what they do to top it next year.

*Photo credits: all photos by Cheryl Mann.

1. Joffrey Ballet’s Victoria Jaiani and Fabrice Calmels in “Son of Chamber Symphony.”

2. Tamako Miyazaki and Brooklyn Mack in “Diana and Actaeon” pas.

3. Giordano Dance Chicago’s Maeghan McHale and Martin Ortiz Tapia in “Two Become Three.”

4. Chicago Human Rhythm Project in “In the Beginning…”.

5. Tamako Miyazaki and Brooklyn Mack in “Diana and Actaeon” pas.

6. Hubbard Street Dance Chicago dancers Jesse Bechard, Johnny McMillan and David Schultz in “Casi-Casa”.

7. Joffrey Ballet in “Episode 31″.

8. Joffrey Ballet in “Interplay”.

9 & 10. Joffrey Ballet in “Episode 31″.

11. Joffrey Ballet dancers John Mark Giragosian and Anastacia Holden in “Tarantella”.

12. Philadanco in “Wake Up”.

13. Hubbard Street Dance Chicago dancers Johnny McMillan and Alice Klock in “Little mortal jump”.

14. Brian Brooks in “I’m Going to Explode”.

15. Chicago Human Rhythm Project in “In the Beginning…”.

CDF13: Solitaire – A Game of Dance (gala)

Alvin Ailey dancer Samuel Lee Roberts in "IN/SIDE". Photo by Paul Kolnik.

Last night the Chicago Dancing Festival (CDF) hosted a benefit gala at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) and premiered the Solitaire – A Game of Dance performance that will be repeated this Friday at 6 and 8 pm. Guests mingled in the lobby with wine and passed hors d’oeuvres while perusing silent auction items. MCA Director of Performance Programs Peter Taub introduced CDF co-founders Jay Franke (in the cutest shorts suit!) and Lar Lubovitch, who in turn introduced our favorite local dance fan, Mayor Rahm Emanuel. After telling the dancers backstage to “break a leg” (Eek!), he proceeded to boast about “the largest free dance fest anywhere in the country”. He brought his family along including his parents who were celebrating their 58th wedding anniversary (aww). He talked about the 750 free events that have taken place in Chicago this summer and said that next year the hope is to take CDF around the city and “break out to all the neighborhoods”.

Franke graciously thanked everyone that helped to make CDF13 possible and Lubovitch, a man as eloquent with words as he is with choreography, gave us a history of the game solitaire (“the game of patience”) and a brief essay on how hard it is dancing and creating a solo. But he promised the performance would show just “how vast and varied the art of dancing alone is”. The show indeed did just that. A hand of cards projected on the back wall served as program notes and transitions. Before each solo a card was flipped with the picture and name of the artist about to perform.

First, the exquisite Victoria Jaiani of the Joffrey Ballet danced a breathtaking and heart-wrenching (yes, I cried) Dying Swan variation from 1905. She seemed to float across the stage in her entrance. From her delicate death, we jump to the dramatic, super strong solo In/Side (2008) performed by Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre‘s Samuel Lee Roberts. His sheer physicality was expertly matched by Robert Battle’s intense choreography. Ensemble Español‘s Julia Hinojosa danced a beautiful ode to Cuba in this flirtatious, percussive solo complete with a gorgeous long ruffled skirt and a large white fan. Ensueños de mi Caribe (2012), inspired by the city of Havana, showcases the traditions of flamenco. The petite Camille A. Brown commanded the stage in a powerful, puppet-like excerpt from her 2012 work Mr. Tol E. RAncE celebrating black performers and challenging stereotypes.

Natya Dance Theatre dancer Krithika Rajagopalan. Photo by Amitava Sarkar.

Things lightened up as Hubbard Street Dance Chicago dancers Johnny McMillan, David Schultz and Jonathan Fredrickson took the stage in Alejandro Cerrudo’s charming PACOPEPEPLUTO (2011), a fun, technically challenging and “cheeky” trio of solos set to Dean Martin songs. Krithika Rajagopalan of Natya Dance Theatre, wearing a stunning orange and red sari, was a study of intricate detail and expression in Sthithihi – In the Stillness (2013). The placement of each finger or the raising of an eyebrow telling an entire story. The performance went from stillness to the extreme with Brian Brooks’ frenetic 2007 solo I’m Going to Explode. Towards the end of the solo, he spirals down onto his knees leaving one arm extended up to the ceiling reminding me of the swan dying at the beginning of the show.

The evening ended with guests gathering in the upstairs galleries for drinks, dinner, dancing and a live auction. Once again, CDF did what it does best, which is bring a wide range of dance forms together on one stage performed by some of the best dancers around. You may not enjoy every style of dance you see here, but you can’t deny the talent, commitment and artistry involved.

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.

2013 Chicago Dancing Festival

Chicago Dancing Festival at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion. Photo by Todd Rosenberg.

It’s almost that time of year again. In late August (20th-24th), the seventh annual Chicago Dancing Festival (CDF) hits Chicago stages for another year of fantastic FREE dance concerts. Once again, for the third year, I will be part of CDF’s blogger initiative covering the performances and providing dancer/choreographer interviews and behind-the-scenes rehearsal sneak peeks. Woot!

This year’s line up of performers is fantastic. Local companies Chicago Human Rhythm Project, Giordano Dance Chicago, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago and The Joffrey Ballet as well as NY-based companies Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Brian Brooks Moving Company, Camille A. Brown & Dancers and Lar Lubovitch Dance Company all return to the fest. CDF newcomers include Chicago’s Ensemble Español and Natya Dance Theatre and Philadelphia’s Philadanco, plus artists Brooklyn Mack of Washington Ballet and Tamako Miyazaki of Columbia Classical Ballet and Dortmund Ballet.

2013 Chicago Dancing Festival will also have two commissions: a new piece by Chi-town tappers Lane Alexander and Bril Barrett and the Chicago premiere of Alexander Ekman’s Episode 31 by Joffrey (this work will also appear on their Winter program in Feb 2014). Live music will accompany the Lubovitch company and Ensemble Español. Tuesday (Aug. 20) opens the festival with a celebration for the Harris Theater‘s 10th anniversary. Wednesday (Aug. 21) is the CDF gala performance and benefit at the Museum of Contemporary Art/MCA Stage. It’s the only event in which you need to purchase a ticket ($250). Thursday (Aug. 22) showcases Dancing in Chicago with an all-local show at the Auditorium Theatre. Friday is a free repeat of the gala performance, Solitaire – A Game of Dance, featuring all solo works. And, Saturday is the much-loved, highly-attended Celebration of Dance at the outdoor Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park.

All performances – except the gala – are free. Tickets for indoor events need to be reserved, but the outdoor Pritzker show is open to the public. The ticket release for the performances is staggered and there is a limit of two (2) tickets per order. Stay tuned for a post with the ticket release dates and performance times.

Joffrey’s American Legends Review

Joffrey dancer Victoria Jaiani in Stanton Welch's "Son of a Chamber Symphony". Photo by Herb Migdoll.

Last night, the Joffrey Ballet opened a 10-performance run of American Legends at the Auditorium Theatre. History was in the air as legendary choreographers Jerome Robbins, Twyla Tharp and Joffrey’s own Gerald Arpino’s works took over the stage, but it was the newest work, Stanton Welch’s 2012 Son of a Chamber Symphony, that stole the show. Three stylish looks back and one big jeté forward to the future.

Robbins’ 1945 Interplay opened the show with a fast, flirty and fun piece showing the playfulness of youth. Dancers in colorful costumes zipped through the movement showcasing technical feats with huge, laughing smiles. Strong dancing from the entire cast with stand outs John Mark Giragosian performing four sequential double tours (move over OMG, new catchphrase is JMG!) and Cara Marie Gary whipping off a la secondé turns en pointe with the boys. After a short pause, Arpino’s 1962 Sea Shadow transported the audience to a secluded seaside and a dream of love. Young up-and-comers Jeraldine Mendoza and Dylan Gutierrez danced a lovely pas de deux in honor of the company co-founder’s 90th birthday year. (Happy bday Mr. A!) Her liquid bourrées enchanted, while his partnering proved strong and sure. Height difference made some of the floor work awkward, but these two will grow and thrive in these roles.

Joffrey dancer Aaron Rogers in Stanton Welch's "Son of a Chamber Symphony". Photo by Herb Migdoll.

Get in the DeLorian and fire up the flux capacitor because we are flying from the early ’60s to 2012 and beyond. Welch’s Son of a Chamber Symphony, created for and on the Joffrey dancers and set to music of the same title by John Adams, delightfully deconstructs classical ballet, turning steps, structure and the costumes inside out to create a fresh, exciting new form. Ballerinas undulate in slicing tutus hovering at the far edges of their technique. Men hang mid-air in leaps only to land and take off in a flurry of footwork. Three movements each feature a central – and stunning – pas (Amber Neumann and Matthew Adamczyk, Victoria Jaiani and Fabrice Calmels, April Daly and Temur Suluashvili) that take seemingly normal moves like a promenade and skew it on an extreme angle or by a surprising hold highlighting fierce female flexibility and ultimate trust in partnering. The square structure and choreographic edginess was reminiscent of William Forsythe’s In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated with obvious nods to classics like Swan Lake and Giselle, yet Welch takes the dancers natural talents and pushes them to new, exciting ends.

After Welch’s wonder, going back to 1982 for Tharp’s sultry and sassy Nine Sinatra Songs provided a bit of choreographic whiplash. The cast of seven couples lead by the dashing Daly and Calmels gleefully glided through the nine sections of jazzy ballet laced with ballroom chic. Each duet had its own characters and story to tell under a gigantic, twirling disco ball. Lucas Segovia, paired with Jaiani, shown with dapper, distinguished star power and technical chameleon Elizabeth Hansen never disappoints. The dancers were lovely – sorry ladies, but those shoes are horrible! – and the audience was clearly wooed by the romance and velvet voice of Sinatra. Since the final piece was to recorded music (the previous three were accompanied by the wonderful Chicago Philharmonic) necessity dictated the order of the show. The performance would have been better served, in my opinion, if it had followed the evolutionary and chronological arc of the choreography.

 

 

 

CDF 12: Opening Night slideshow

After School Matters #CDF12
After School Matters CDF 2012
Bolero Chicago CDF 2012
Bolero Chicago CDF 2012
Bolero Chicago CDF 2012
Bolero Chicago CDF 2012
GDC CDF 2012
GDC CDF 2012
HSDC CDF 2012
HSDC CDF 2012
HSDC CDF 2012
Joffrey CDF 2012
Joffrey CDF 2012
Joffrey CDF 2012
 
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View some great photos taken of the Chicago Dancing Festival‘s opening night program Chicago Dancing taken by the ever-lovely Cheryl Mann.

1 & 2: After School Matters in Touch of Soul by Nicholas Leichter

3 – 6: Bolero Chicago by Larry Keigwin

7 & 8: Giordano Dance Chicago dancers Maeghan McHale & Martin Ortiz Tapia in Two Become Three by Alexander Ekman

9-11: Hubbard Street Dance Chicago dancers Kellie Epperheimer, Johnny McMillan, Garrett Anderson & Pablo Piantino in Scarlatti by Twyla Tharp

12-14: Joffrey Ballet dancers Victoria Jaiani & Rory Hohenstein in In The Middle, Somewhat Elevated by William Forsythe

Joffrey Enthralls with Spring Desire

Joffrey Ballet dancers in Edwaard Liang's
Joffrey Ballet dancers in Edwaard Liang's
Joffrey Ballet's Fabrice Calmels & Victoria Jaiani in Edwaard Liang's
Joffrey Ballet's Fabrice Calmels & Victoria Jaiani in Edwaard Liang's
Joffrey Ballet's Fabrice Calmels & Victoria Jaiani in Edwaard Liang's
Joffrey Ballet's Fabrice Calmels & Victoria Jaiani in Edwaard Liang's
Joffrey Ballet's April Daly & Miguel Blanco in Jerome Robbins'
Joffrey Ballet's April Daly & Miguel Blance in Jerome Robbins'
Joffrey Ballet's April Daly & Miguel Blanco in Jerome Robbins'
Joffrey Ballet's Christine Rocas & Mauro Villanueva in Jerome Robbins'
Joffrey Ballet's Victoria Jaiani & Fabrice Calmels in Jerome Robbins'
Joffrey Ballet's Christine Rocas & Rory Hohenstein in Val Caniparoli's
Joffrey Ballet's Joanna Wozniak & Matthew Adamczyk in Val Caniparoli's
Joffrey Ballet's Joanna Wozniak & Matthew Adamczyk in Val Caniparoli's
Joffrey Ballet's Joanna Wozniak & Matthew Adamczyk in Val Caniparoli's
Joffrey Ballet's John Mark Giragosian & Yumelia Garcia in Val Caniparoli's
Joffrey's Ballet's Lucas Segovia in Val Caniparoli's
Joffrey Ballet's Lucas Segovia in Val Caniparoli's
Joffrey Ballet's Rory Hohenstein in Val Caniparoli's
Joffrey Ballet's Rory Hohenstein in Val Caniparoli's
Joffrey Ballet's Jeraldine Mendoza & Mauro Villanueva in Edwaard Liang's
 
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All photography by Herbert Migdoll.

Joffrey Ballet‘s Spring Desire program, which opened Wednesday evening and runs through May 6th, lured the audience in with romantic notions, then turned up the heat with stunning displays of technical bravado and elite gracefulness.  This talented group of dancers ends the season on a high note with an impressive, progressive rep tackled and another stellar world premiere, Val Caniparoli’s Incantations.  This new work, set to music of the same title by Russian composer Alexandre Rabinovitch-Barakovsky, was a study in constant motion threading quick masterful feats (huge jumps, multiple turns and tricky partnering) with a zen-like through-line of lead couple Joanna Wozniak and Matthew Adamczyk.  Their calmness in execution of difficult partnering differed from the frenetic energy surrounding them culminating in the ending pas de deux (gorgeous!) that consolidated light and energy directly on them in ever-shrinking  revolving spirals.   Caniparoli goes against the norm by ending the multi-sectioned work on a somber calming note.  After the “shot-out-of-a-cannon” start, the audience lulled into a tantric swirl of beauty.  He takes a common jete and inverts and arm or places a hand behind the head to make it seem new.  Pirouettes ending with a swivel of the head add an edge and remind of Forsythe.  Congrats to the entire cast, choreographer, sets/costume designer (Sandra Woodall) and lighting designer (Lucy Carter) are due.

Leading the program was Edwaard Liang’s Age of Innocence originally choreographed for the company in 2008.  The large group piece inspired by the novels of Jane Austen started off a big shaky with timing and formation being a bit off, but made up for it with some stellar dancing in the smaller sections.  Jeraldine Mendoza showed that she can hold her own with the big guns in a fearless duet with Mauro Villanueva.  (She was also a stand out in Wayne McGregor’s Infra earlier this season.)  The men’s section – literally titled The Men – showed off the virtuoso talents of Raul Casasola, Aaron Rogers, Ricardo Santos and Temue Suluashvili in a spectacular game of one-upmanship.  It should be no surprise that the pas de deux by Victoria Jaiani and Fabrice Calmels (a staple for galas) was a luscious lesson in stunning lifts and exquisite partnering.  She flies across the stage at him and flings herself backward into his arms, open and vulnerable like a resting butterfly only to be pressed to the sky by her adonis of a partner.  They make everything look simple.  Simply beautiful.

Sandwiched between the two larger works was Jerome Robbins’ In The Night.  Created in 1970, it features three couples in separate pas de deux representing differing stages of love.  With live accompaniment by long-time Joffrey collaborator pianist Paul James Lewis, six of Joffrey’s top dancers transported the theater to a by-gone era.  Christine Rocas and Villaneuva, along with Jaiani and Calmels offered soft, romantic duets with a more fiery pas in between danced by April Daly and Miguel Angel Blanco.  This was Blanco’s first performance since an achilles injury took him out last season requiring two surgeries.  It was great to see him back strong and handsome.  While Robbins’ is a master (and West Side Story is my all-time favorite movie), compared to the other, more contemporary ballets on the program, In The Night seemed a bit boring.

For ticket and performance information call 800.982.2787 or visit joffrey.org/spring.

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?”.

 

Tear It Apart

Joffrey dancers Victoria Jaiani & Fabrice Calmels in William Forsythe's "In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated". Photo by Herbert Migdoll.

“Just music, head, hands,” he says to the dancers.  It’s Monday morning and the Joffrey Ballet dancers are ready for a run-through of William Forsythe’s 1987 work, In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated.  They’ve learned all the steps and had two days off over the weekend.  Some dancers have been sick, so répétiteur Glen Tuggle tells them to take it easy.  “Mark it, but always do head and hands.”  Even marking, you can see the difficulty of the choreography.  The intricate hand grips, the off-center leans, the speed.  This 22-minute abstract piece pushes dancers to their limits and then asks them to go one step more. Stretch their technique to the limit, or “tear it apart”.

Tuggle, currently the Ballet Master/Teacher with Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo, has danced with Harkness Ballet (disbanded 1975), Zurich Opera, Stuttgart Ballet and Frankfurt Ballet (disbanded 2004).  He met William (Bill) Forsythe while in Stuttgart at the age of 22.  Forsythe had just started to choreograph.  Fast forward 23 years and Tuggle has the enjoyable task of teaching/setting Foysythe works around the world.  Having danced Middle for numerous years, he is intimately familiar with the work.  Originally created for the Paris Opera Ballet, Forsythe cast a young Sylvie Guillem in one of the lead roles and made her a star.  I sat down with Tuggle at the Joffrey Tower to discuss the famous work and working with our home town company.

How is it working with the Joffrey dancers?

Wonderful! I’ve been having a great time.  We’ve all been having a great time. I set ‘Middle’ in 17 days. I know it, of course, but for the dancers to learn it that fast is amazing. 

What is the most difficult thing about teaching it?

In ‘Middle’, we take the classical language and stretch it – tear it apart. Some of the classic lines…you see them, but then they go to a further degree and you don’t recognize them anymore.  I think the hardest thing about teaching it is helping the dancers understand how far they can go.  Giving them enough confidence in themselves to be comfortable doing that.

How do you do that?

I find most of my work, whether it’s setting ‘Middle’ or the other ballets I set for Forsythe or teaching class, is to care for the dancers…let them know that I believe in them, that I care for them.  It’s a dialogue we have together as a teacher or rehearsal director or coach. It’s quite intimate. I find one of the most interesting parts of my job is the psychological aspect of working with dancers either individually or as a group.  It takes a lot of thought to help them understand how far they can go and to trust themselves.  I’ve worked with many dancers who’ve been damaged by the schools they went to and they hear “No” way too often in their career.  I learned from some of the most influential people in ballet over the last 30 years that the use of language is extremely important when working with dancers.  You try not to use too many negatives.  There is always a way of saying things without “No” being in it.  Especially if you see a dancer who is already not confident.  Even if they have the everything, the beauty, the body, the technique…they don’t actually believe what they see.  You have to really convince them that they are beautiful.

Why do you enjoy setting this particular work?

It’s always so fulfilling for me, even after 23 years of working with ‘Middle’, because the dancers have such a great time and you’re introducing them to a world they aren’t familiar with in Bill’s works. He says, “Be where you are.”  If you’re not where you want to be, dance and be where you are.  Technically he’ll let them go for something really difficult, because they’re just going to walk out of it.  So if it works, you can say, it really worked tonight, but if it doesn’t work, no one will know. The audience won’t know. You’re not usually asked to do that.  I’ve seen some phenomenal things happen in ‘Middle’, where the people themselves couldn’t believe they did it. 

Is it just an abstract dance or is there meaning behind it? What is the audience supposed to take away?

I think he just wants them to be stimulated by it and see the degree and the level of dancing that’s possible when one is given the opportunity and given the freedom to tear it apart.  There is a lot of freedom in ‘Middle’. The last pas de deux (which is just phenomenal), he said it’s like you’re in a disco and just tearing it apart.  It’s so technically so difficult, because of the speed. 

Also on the program, Christopher Wheeldon’s beautiful After the Rain, which made its Joffrey premiere in 2010 and Wayne McGregor’s Infra, inspired in part by the 2005 London subway bombings.  Joffrey will be the first company to perform the work outside the Royal Ballet, where it premiered in 2008.

Joffrey Ballet presents Winter Fire – Feb 15 – 26

The Auditorium Theatre, 50 E Congress

Tickets are $25 – $149.  Call 800.982.2787 or visit ticketmaster.com