Joffrey Ballet's La Bayadere
By Lynn Colburn Shapiro
The Joffrey Ballet’s La Bayadere (The Temple Dancer) is no museum piece. Fresh and full of spicy spectacle and delectible dancing, Stanton Welch’s evening-length story ballet, created in 2010 for the Houston Ballet, remains faithful to its 19th-century model while refurbishing the storytelling and staging for 21st-century sensibilities.
Live snakes, a dead Bengal Tiger, a man on fire leaping out of flames, and an opium dream of one hundred identical ghost brides (in truth only twenty, but they seemed like one hundred!) are only a few of the surprises the Joffrey Ballet dishes up in Welch’s version, a company premiere.
The biggest and best surprise by far is the superb storytelling this 19th-century relic has inspired in Welch’s re-envisioned staging, based on Marius Petipa’s original 1877 choreography for The Imperial Russian Ballet, with music by Ludwig Minkus. Unlike many productions from that era that interrupt the dance sequences with a highly-codified, sometimes even ridiculous, mime language known as del’sart to “tell” the story, this staging integrates acting and dancing in a fluid continuum of choreographed dance and gesture that builds characters, relationships, and scenes with complete theatrical integrity. The good news here is that you don’t need program notes to figure out what’s happening on stage.
Welch and The Joffrey accomplish this by taking a predictable Indian folk tale and elevating it into a love poem in movement. Yes, there is mime, but it is hardly mere shorthand for the spoken word. This mime is born of the entire body and soul with a largeness that matches the mythic quality of the story and that connects to what we might be tempted to label as “the dancing.” In fact, what is so marvelous here is that the “mime” is the dancing as well. Far from an interruption of the choreography, dramatic gesture compliments and amplifies it and is every bit as heartfelt and expressive as the sweeping leaps, sparkling double tours, and crisp entrechats six of the ensemble as they populate the Rajah’s royal courtyard.
Most commanding is Fabrice Calmels as the jealous High Brahmin whose expansive gestural vocabulary fills the entire stage with a “voice” more compelling than oral language. While the role does not afford Calmels many juicy ballet solos, he infuses his character with physical and emotional power that dominates the action. His willful insistence on possessing the temple dancer Nikiya (Victoria Jaiani) as his bride ignites the fires of evil throughout the court and literally brings the roof of his house down on himself. Before that happens, however, we are treated to Nikiya and Solor’s story of passion and unrequited love.
In the role of Nikiya, Jaiani’s extensions and exquisitely fluid spine transcend technical brilliance with a depth of feeling that elevates the story to a level of universal recognition. Her girlish effervescence in the first blush of love for Solor, then her devastation over his betrothal to Gamzatti, resonate in movement that speaks volumes, both in her ephemeral armsand pliant torso.
April Daly, usually all sunny smiles and lightness on stage, does her wily best as Gamzatti to win Solor through dark deception. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Amber Neumann brings her exceptional radiance and lyricism to the second solo in The Kingdom of the Shades. This is a young dancer to keep an eye on.
The whole production ripples with delicious details. Derrick Agnoletti as the wild man Kalum left no doubt that evil would win the day with his cat-like malevolence, and John Mark Giragosian spun virtual flames with his fiery leaps as Agni the Fire God. Especially impressive was the quartet of men at the betrothal celebration in Act II, who dazzled with the precision of their unison brisees and cabrioles.
Spectacular sets and costumes by Peter Farmer took the imagination to long ago and far away India, and even though the movement vocabulary was drenched in the classical ballet vernacular of European culture, the choreography did throw a token hand or arm gesture toward India now and then. But we are willing to accept Indian Temple Dancers doing bourees on pointe, because whatever the style of their dancing, the dancers in this temple all know who they are in the story, why they are there, and what they want, from the lead players down to the lowliest water carrier.
Classical story ballet traditionally milks its story for as many opportunities as possible to show off the talents of company dancers, and this production of La Bayadere is no exception, but with the stellar talents of this remarkable company, it does so with a pervading respect for the story’s truth. That in itself is an accomplishment worth noting, and we can thank the Joffrey Ballet for making a luscious gift of La Bayadere.
Photo by Cheryl Mann.
Joffrey Ballet, "American Legends"
By Laura Molzahn
It’s amazing, the amount of work that goes into making something look easy. On opening night of “American Legends,” the Joffrey made three of the four pieces, each uniquely challenging, look like falling off a log.
The wide-ranging “American Legends” (which began Wednesday and runs through February 24 at the Auditorium) revolves around “American-ness,” romance, playfulness. It not only spans several approaches to ballet but the 70 years between 1942 and 2012. Perhaps in keeping with the theme of love, artistic director Ashley Wheater writes in a program note that dance isn’t about moving bodies, but “moving hearts.”
I fell in love with Stanton Welch’s new Son of Chamber Symphony, a cool, translucent, utterly contemporary work that lifts the heart with its sober architectural mien and underlying humor. Commissioned by the Joffrey and first performed last August at Jacob’s Pillow, this piece for four male corps members, six female corps dancers, and three featured couples belies the concept of “American-ness.” Welch is an Australian native, now head of Houston Ballet; by this point, the Balanchine aesthetic has circled the globe many times.
But Australia is another New World country, and that shows in Welch’s waggish musical and choreographic choices. John Adams’s 2007 three-movement “Son of Chamber Symphony” (commissioned by Mark Morris for Joyride) is the “son” of Adams’s 1992 “Chamber Symphony,” in turn the cock-eyed offspring of Schoenberg’s "Chamber Symphony." As interpreted by conductor Scott Speck and the Chicago Philharmonic, this rhythmically complex, fiendishly unpredictable composition delivers a gale-force wind of fresh air.
That archness also marks Welch’s essentially classical choreography. In the last movement, for instance, he focuses on the principal ballerina’s rump, framing it for a few seconds in a blinding light and the perfect circle of her stiff platter tutu. Those tutus (designed by Travis Halsey) come in for some heavy-duty use, enhancing the tick-tock rocking moves that Welch regularly employs, initially put in motion during the stop-start music of the first movement, then brought back in the rushing third.
In general Son of Chamber Symphony has hard edges and a tender heart. Jack Mehler’s abstract scenic design suggests steel girders, and his lighting is crisp and abrupt (though subtly evocative). The piece’s overall discipline and restraint highlight the understated romance of the middle movement, a duet performed by stalwarts Victoria Jaiani and Fabrice Calmels, whose fleeting caresses and great, arcing lifts are set not so much to melody as to pulsing, swelling rhythmic lines.
Twyla Tharp’s 1982 ballroom dance-inspired Nine Sinatra Songs, which the Joffrey gives its company premiere, presents a very different challenge. This dance for seven couples must live in the land of paradox: hot/cold love, young/old love, focused/accidental love. It’s a lush, sometimes funny piece with an undercurrent of sadness and loss, partly because of Frank Sinatra’s often-dark delivery of the songs’ ambivalent lyrics. It shatters romance into its different facets but requires the dancers to keep them all in mind, especially in the two sections set to different renditions of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way.”
For whatever reason --- insufficient rehearsal, difficulty with the ballroom idiom, misaligned stars --- this closing dance on opening night failed to deliver. In many of the duets, the dancers struggled just to perform the moves; there was no breathing room for nuanced interpretation. In others, the moves were there but not the feeling; in the tango-ish “Strangers in the Night,” the dancers came across as brittle, not incipiently passionate behind stony faces. Only Mahalia Ward and Graham Maverick really nailed the physical and emotional aspects of their duet, capturing the comedic sweetness of first love in “Something Stupid.”
Possibly the Joffrey lacks the star-power depth to adequately interpret seven romantic duets. But a revival of Gerald Arpino’s 1962 duet, Sea Shadow, revealed two young performers who proved powerful romantic finds. Jeraldine Mendoza (who joined the Joffrey in 2011) is irresistibly seductive as the sea nymph, while Dylan Gutierrez (joined 2009) registers first the loneliness, then the joy of his outwardly sturdy shipwrecked sailor. Though this slithery, too-literal piece (the male dancer actually listens to a giant conch shell) has never really been to my taste, these dancers transformed it.
Jerome Robbins’s 1944 Interplay, which the Joffrey hasn’t performed since its company premiere in 1972, proved another welcome “addition,” providing a time-tripping gloss on a 20th-century American tradition. This lighthearted piece for four men and four women prefigures Robbins’s gang choreography for West Side Story (1957), which in turn prefigures the crews and dance battles of hip-hop. Interplay’s piquant flirtations, now a dance staple, are fresh here --- and all the fresher for the music, Morton Gould’s “American Concertette.” A particularly fine, bluesy piano solo was well interpreted by dancers Christine Rocas and Alberto Velazquez, while John Mark Giragosian perfectly captured the “what, me worry?” innocent confidence of our country on the cusp of winning World War II. A time-trip indeed.
Joffrey Ballet's "Winter Fire"
If there's a medal for sheer guts, the Joffrey dancers should all get one. They must have run the equivalent of several marathons on opening night of "Winter Fire." And they did it with amazing physical and emotional inflection.
What's hottest about "Winter Fire" is its blazing ambition. Running through Sunday, February 26, at the Auditorium, the program comprises three contemporary ballet classics --- if "classic" can be applied to a four-year-old dance like Wayne McGregor's. (I think it can.) Scoring the U.S. premiere of his 2008 "Infra" was a big coup. And though the Joffrey has previously performed excerpts from William Forsythe's 1987 "In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated," set on ballet companies worldwide, it's never before danced the entire mind-blowing work. Christopher Wheeldon's 2005 "After the Rain" completes the program.
Anyone who still believes that abstract ballets lack heart because they lack story should definitely see "Winter Fire." And anyone who already loves contemporary dance should see it because, here in the heartland, we don't get sufficient opportunities to catch the classics.
Thanks to Thom Willems's electronic score, Forsythe's "In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated" begins with a literal bang --- and a spotlight on two ballerinas facing off, displaying their turnout and dagger-like pointe-shod feet. Then the race is on; the piece becomes a diabolical dance engine powered by the all-mighty foot. Raising and lowering this crucial appendage creates the most exhilarating shifts in a work that's filled with them. Men and women alike magically rise and fall from one strata of the stage space to another, in swift moves precisely timed to the percussive music.
There's definitely an 80s edge of competition and even violence to "In the Middle," which is like a machine relentlessly assembling and disassembling itself over and over. It seems we're dropped into the process in medias res, and we wonder when and how it will end, for us and for the dancers, as their limbs continually explode out from their cores.
That innate violence is mitigated, however, by the piece's finesse and detail. The care that's gone into the choreography and the performance (thanks to former Forsythe dancer Glen Tuggle) creates a cogent sympathy with the dancers and the dance's underlying engine: human craft and effort.
That's a tough act to follow. Wheeldon's "After the Rain," with its focus on everyday humanity, did seem slight by comparison. Opening with a cool, elegant ensemble section for three couples that mourns the passing of time, it closes with a duet by one of the couples. On opening night, clad in a warm, peachy glow and not much else, Victoria Jaiani and Fabrice Calmels embodied the height of romance in what is apparently a flashback to the lost, idyllic relationship.
McGregor's 30-minute "Infra" seemed the biggest struggle of the evening for the dancers, perhaps because it came at the end of a strenuous program and because it was the newest, least practiced piece. Also the 12 dancers seemed, on average, younger and less experienced (kudos, though, to Rory Hohenstein and Jaiani, two expert performers who demonstrated amazing energy and control in all three pieces). Then there's the usual problem of setting a work created for specific dancers -- in this case, the Royal Ballet -- on other performers of differing abilities and body types. That can be a particular challenge with duets, especially those that entwine the dancers as artfully as these do. Duets also dominate the piece.
More time will help the performance. And "Infra" is worth the effort. Created in response to the London bombings of 2005, which killed 52 innocent commuters and injured hundreds of others, it's bolstered by McGregor's trademark technology --- here, Julian Opie's pared but nuanced designs, displayed on a giant LED screen over the dancers' heads, showing lines of people walking purposefully, presumably going to work. Max Richter's score combines feeling and ghostly diffidence.
Insane pliability, control, and speed are the hallmarks of McGregor's choreography. The legs drive into the floor or the air while the torso ripples, the shoulders ripple, heads and hands get tic-cy. The women are spun like pinwheels and cradled like babies. Though little of the movement is gestural, some is hugely so, which gives it a hefty wallop. Despite --- or because of --- the moves' frequent artificiality, they convey intense communication by and between the dancers. "Infra" really does make you feel you've delved beneath the surface of anonymous commuters, people who work and live and die, not anonymously, but with passionate individuality.
"Winter Fire" exposed a sinewy, snaky side of the Joffrey I'd never quite seen before. In more traditional ballet roles, the women can't be this strong, and the men this serpentine. Ricardo Santos was especially sinuous in "In the Middle," while Christine Rocas was especially steely there and in "Infra." But all the dancers deserve props for tackling, and largely conquering, these works. I know it's their job. I'm still grateful.
Joffrey Ballet's Farewell
By Sid Smith
Watching a dancer's farewell is a little like a shot of Tequila--a quick thrill, a suffuse feeling of warmth and then a nagging doubt that regret will soon follow.
The Joffrey Ballet said goodbye to six dancers at the Auditorium Theatre Sunday, and two of them were given special showcases: Calvin Kitten and Suzanne Lopez. In a way, their retirements--both are in their late 30s--are part of the end of an era, as the dancers hired and honed by Gerald Arpino move on, and the company takes on more and more of Ashley Wheater's stamp. Kitten in particular seemed an Arpino trademark, a speedy acrobat in the tradition of Edward Stierle, whose choreographic and dance careers were cut short by AIDS, and Mark Goldweber, who worked here with the company before joining Adam Sklute at Ballet West, where Kitten himself now heads to work backstage
Certainly in the years the Joffrey has resided in Chicago, Kitten soared as one of the troupe's most delightful and reliable stars. He pretty much patented three roles in "The Nutcracker": Fritz, the Snow Prince and Tea from China, his Fritz delightfully puckish and spoiled, his Snow Prince a velveteen display of pure talent and style.
On Sunday, he danced George Balanchine's "Tarantella," partnering with Yumelia Garcia, and, as if in deference to his popularity, a last-minute schedule shift put his farewell at the end of the program. "Tarantella" proved a pungent choice, joyful and radiant with technical frolic and good taste, ideal for the impish, almost childlike delight Kitten often brought to dance. It was also nice that a dancer whose athletics so often rendered him a soloist on stage got to go out dancing with a partner, and the naughty, stolen kiss the he makes at the end allowed Kitten, pun fully intended here, a kittenish final moment. That tempered some of the bittersweet sorrow unavoidable in knowing we'll no longer have him to watch.
Lopez didn't enjoy Kitten's singularity, his role as a special kind of dancer for the troupe. Instead, she vied with all the other ballerinas in classic parts and nonetheless shone brightly whenever on stage. I marveled as I watched her last performance, with Mauro Villanueva in Helgi Tomasson's silky "Valses Poeticos," how well-rounded a ballerina she is. No particular skill or classic position particularly shines in her execution. Instead, she made them all lovely, she brought them together into a lovely and sensuous whole and she glowed on stage, never more so than in this dreamy, romantic pas de deux.
The Joffrey's treatment of these farewells each season is infectious, with all the dancers marching on stage one by one and giving the retirees single roses until a whole bouquet is assembled--in a way, an apt metaphor for the mix of individuality and communal spirit that defines the art of dance. Lopez was even greeted by her two young children, reinforcing the idea of a dance company as a family. Whatever the differences and disagreements along the way, all of these folks deserve credit for succeeding in a merciless, cutthroat, incredibly idealistic pursuit.
It's also a fine occasion bridging that divide between artists and audiences--not just a chance to say so long, which is important, but a sudden burst of intimacy between watcher and watched, a personal connection in a business where a certain professional detachment is built into the enterprise. We watch these dancers year after year as strangers, removed, never even hearing them speak, for the most part, unlike stage actors. Yet, we feel a kinship, an affection, and that blossoms in these farewells, heightened by the very real emotions on stage that remind us these folks are human, real people with vulnerabilities and heartaches, who give up so much and work so hard to entertain us.
Four other dancers are leaving, and they, too will be missed: David Gombert, Thomas Nicholas, Megan Quiroz and Patrick Simoniello.
Bravo and brava! All deserve thanks for hours of immeasurable pleasure.