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.

Hamburg Ballet’s Epic Nijinski (review)

Hamburg Ballet in John Neumeier's "Nijinski".

It was a packed house at the Harris Theater last night for the opening night of the Hamburg Ballet‘s epic ballet Nijinsky. The curtain was already up as the audience began to fill the theater, viewing a stage filled with a grand set depicting a formal ballroom complete with white columned second-level seating, a giant modern chandelier and a live pianist playing. A lone wooden chair sits in the middle of the ballroom waiting as guests arrive talking and laughing aloud. Before a step is danced, it is clear, this is not your typical ballet.

The ballet, choreographed in 2000 by Artistic Director and Midwesterner (he was born in Milwaukee, WI) John Neumeier, begins with Vaslav Nijinski’s final public performance in a hotel in Switzerland in 1919. Extensive program notes reveal that the dancer is already quite mad with schizophrenia by then and the ballet dives into his mind’s “thoughts, memories and hallucinations” during this last solo. Memories of his lover Sergei Diaghilev, his marriage and subsequent betrayal by his wife, plus characters he danced and choreographed all morph into a wild, confusing tale of love, sadness and madness. A Harlequin, a poet, a slave, a rose and a faun. With all of the character’s he’s ever danced or choreographed all dancing on stage at once, it makes you feel…well, crazy.

Act II dives even deeper into his mad mind combining his scandalous ballet Le Sacre du Printemps (which Joffrey Ballet will be performing next season) with the first World War making a haunting and frightening mental journey. The score of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 11 adds to the dramatic climax. Neumeier creates the perfect blend of manic dancing with subtle sadness. On a touching note, even though Nijinksi’s wife, Romola, had broken his heart by cheating on him, she is the one who is there throughout to care for him. As the ballet ends, we’re transported back into the ballroom where the solo is ending, but now all the characters are represented maniacally laughing with the sets askew and distorted. It’s not a feel-good ballet, but it is definitely something you want/need to see.

The large cast (I counted close to 60 dancers on stage at one point) was extremely talented, but Alexandre Riabko as Nijinski brilliantly stole the show. His charismatic and vulnerable portrayal of the troubled artist that had him dancing most of the 2 1/2 hour ballet, was intriguing, inspiring and heartbreaking. Dazzling tours and jumps with pristine technique melt into a contorted, catatonic pile on the floor and back again. Other stand outs were Helene Bouchet (his wife), Carsten Jung (Diaghilev), Alexandr Trusch (Spectre de la Rose), Thiago Bordin (Golden Slave) and Edvin Ravazov (Father).

The final performance of Hamburg Ballet’s Nijinski is tonight at the Harris Theater. For tickets, call 312.334.7777 or visit