Live review: Joffrey Ballet’s Eclectica
In a 2007 New York Times interview with my counterpart at TONY, Gia Kourlas, Ashley Wheater said, “I want the Joffrey to be the company that it started out being, which was eclectic, with a huge respect for where we’ve come from.” A troublesome association of the E-word is that it can be a euphemism for “erratic” or “bizarre,” what you hope sounds like a compliment when invited into a musty living room festooned with tschotchkes and crammed full of mismatched furniture. That’s not how Joffrey artistic director Wheater meant it, of course, nor what it’s meant to conjure up as the banner title for a triple bill whose three works have very little in common. No, the intended association here is simply “selecting or choosing from various sources.” This program does that and, as a result, is the most intellectually engaging Joffrey program in recent memory.
In the pre-show video—a tool about which I’ve already said my piece—Wheater states that Gerald Arpino’s 1971 Reflections is one of his predecessor’s most classically-structured works. I’ve seen far fewer Arpino ballets than my colleagues in Chicago dance criticism but I don’t doubt his statement. To Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme for Cello and Orchestra, Reflections is, like many of the Arpinos I have seen, simultaneously derivative and genuine. It has the breeze, and design, of Balanchine’s Allegro Brillante—also to Tchaikovsky—on a slightly larger scale, with a more flippant relationship to its score. It also has the feel of something that was choreographed in sequence. Its first half, up through a duet (danced by Anastacia Holden and Mauro Villanueva) that feels uncommonly natural and spontaneous—for ballet, anyway—sticks with and describes the score’s indulgences and eddies but, by its closing duets (danced by Valerie Robin & Jonathan Dummar, and Victoria Jaiani & Fabrice Calmels), grows impatient with it, biding time with piqués during each cadenza, transparently waiting for a beat to return. Jaiani, if she discovers a throughline, will sell it to the rafters. She gave her all in Reflections but clearly couldn’t find the point, thus neither could we.
I called the last (and first) occasion of Jessica Lang’s choreography on a Chicago stage “trivial.” Crossed is not. Either incredibly savvy or willfully naïve, her six-part ensemble dance to a mish-mash of religious choral pieces by des Prez, Handel and Mozart was wildly polarizing. During the dance’s first pause, the woman to my right—who’d been sighing exasperatingly from the moment the curtain rose—leaned over and said, noticing my note-taking, “I don’t know who you write for, but you can take down that I think this is horrible. I don’t come here to see Jesus, I come here to see ballet and, if I weren’t sitting in the middle of a row, I’d walk out right now.” She was seeing what she wanted to see, as was the vast majority of the house, which gave it a thunderous standing ovation. Only obliquely suggestive of Christian themes—one could argue that, to a more neutral score, Crossed would be a dance about nothing more than perpendicularity—Lang’s work excludes anything that obstructs its usage as a screen on which one can project a Christian narrative, provided it’s sufficiently vague. (It’s not The Passion of the Christ, people: It’s a half-dozen dances to choral music, with four huge set pieces at right angles to one another and a glimpse of robes.) Nicole Pearce’s lighting is more intriguing than any design the Joffrey’s premiered in years and Tamara Cobus’s costumes—Piet Mondrian for Jil Sander, you might say—play perfectly along. This is the epitome of a conversation piece: A few friends and I jabbered about Crossed non-stop until the curtain rose on Pretty BALLET.
James Kudelka’s first commission from the Joffrey since the late ’80s, Pretty BALLET is and isn’t the cynical po-po-mo ensemble work its title suggests. As he’s said, “my work tends to be about ballet itself,” and, through the four movements of Martinu’s second symphony, he (over)proves this statement. References abound, from the abstracted Russian folk dance of Stravinsky Violin Concerto—which the Joffrey will perform in October—to Ashton and Meyerbeer’s Les Patineurs in a mens’ quintet; from The Red Shoes to La Sonnambula in Jaiani and Miguel Ángel Blanco’s lengthy, and eventually hypnotic, duet. (The décor is filled with suggestions, too: Michael Mazzola’s lighting shifts the backdrop from Francis Bacon to Frederic Church to Gerhard Richter and back again, while Denis Lavoie’s tulle skirts cast the women in every Romantic ballet from Les Sylphides to Serenade.) In the midst of an arguably-damaging preoccupation with making dance accessible, I have to say it was a pleasure to watch as Kudelka flipped through his Rolodex of choreographic knowledge—especially considering how intelligently he combines his selections—not caring whether we could keep up or not. Like Lang’s Crossed, albeit with more direct intent, Kudelka’s work invites conversation. Here’s hoping the Joffrey continues to keep its audience fired up and on its toes.