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 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

 

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.

Joffrey Waxes Quixotic

Joffrey dancers Victoria Jaiani & Miguel Angel Blanco. Photo by Sandro.

This Wednesday, October 12th, Joffrey Ballet premieres a new version of Don Quixote at the Auditorium Theatre. The two act re-envisioning of Cervantes classic literary tale brings humor, drama and love to life with bravura dancing and a dash of horseplay.  Choreographed by Yuri Possokhov (former star of the Bolshoi Ballet and current resident choreographer at San Francisco Ballet), the ballet promises to continue the Russian classical traditions, while adding in his charismatic flair.  Possokhov delighted Chicago audiences last spring with Joffrey’s premiere of his commissioned work Bells.  His history with Don Q is long.  “I was ten years old first time I dance in this ballet,” he says in halted English at an Artists Talk Series lecture hosted by Instituto Cervantes last week.  The Bolshoi is the only company to keep Don Q “alive” in it’s rep with every generation passing  it on to the next.  “It’s a gift for him to pass onto this generations of Joffrey dancers,”  says Artistic Director Ashley Wheater of Possokhov’s vast base of knowledge with this ballet.  “I think the company will grow into it.”

How do you take a classic that’s over 140 years old and make it fresh?  “I had to make some twist, something that belongs to this city, this company,” says Possokhov.  That twist includes a more dancing for Don Quixote, which is traditionally more a character role, projections and video by Wendall Harrington integrated to help particularly in the dream sequences, plus a life-size horse puppet created by Von Orthal Puppets operated by male dancers in the company (insert horse’s ass joke here).  Along with the lively score by Ludwig Minkus (played live by the Chicago Sinfonietta, the Joffrey-ized Don Q will surely keep you on the edge of your seat.  Shortly before Possokhov was set to come to Chicago to set the ballet, the Golden Gate Park Windmills, which had been under restorative construction for years, began to spin.  “Is good sign.”

Joffrey Ballet presents Don Quixote, Oct 12th – 23rd

Auditorium Theatre, 50 E Congress

Tickets:  800.982.2787 or 312.386.8905

The Joffrey Academy of Dance, the Official School of the Joffrey Ballet, is offering a Don Quixote-themed master class next Monday, October 17th at 5:30 pm.  Taught by dancer Ericka Mac, the class gives a brief history of the story and choreography, as well as giving a fun barre warm up and teaching the steps of Kitri’s (the female lead) solo.  The class is for students of all levels and ages.

Joffrey Tower, 10 E Randolph, $15, or $10 with a valid college ID.

Reservations:  reception@joffrey.org or 312.784.4600