Masked roisterers peppered the Mag Mile and riverfront as I made my way to the Fine Arts Building Saturday. A surprise river dyeing was enough to bring green-clad Chicagoans out for some merriment; in any other year, the city would seem eerily empty for a St. Patrick’s Day weekend.
Similarly, the Studebaker Theater was sparsely populated for Ballet 5:8’s two performances Saturday. Capacity restrictions meant roughly 100 people (of a possible 1500 over two shows) saw “Reckless,” the suburban company’s brand-new ballet.
It’s been over a year since this critic settled into a plush armchair and gazed at a proscenium. I thought it would feel stranger. The lights dimmed and the night was, in many ways, the same as it ever was.
Ballet 5:8 artistic director Julianna Rubio Slager does double duty as choreographer and lighting designer for “Reckless,” the latest of her biblically-themed ballets. “Reckless” is a modern interpretation of Gomer (portrayed by Lezlie Gray in the first act and Valerie Linsner in the second), an Old Testament character from the book of Hosea. In Slager’s telling, Gomer is a victim of sex trafficking who breaks from her pimp (James Wainwright) to be with Hosea (Samuel Opsal). As the couple weds and has children their relationship evolves. Financial troubles lead Gomer back to the industry. She thrives there at first, but then falls ill and is cast aside by International Blue, the pimp that initially welcomed her back. Hosea brings her home and, as far as one can tell, they live happily ever after.
Pro forma for Slager, the evening moves along at a clip with tons of intricate dances strung one after the other and strong, beautiful partnering from the company’s lead dancers. Projected photographs designed by Sarah Freeman offer a sense of place: Chicago. The ballet opens on an overhead shot of the skyline from the Southwest, then zooms in on a few street scenes, close-ups of “L” platforms, and the recognizable metal window frames and blue upholstered seats inside each car.
Aside from three moveable platforms upstage, however, the rest of the atmosphere is accomplished via a dozen or so dancers in a Greek chorus. Per tradition, this ensemble moves in relative anonymity, costumed in an array pedestrian-esque dancewear in the pale blues and reds of the Chicago flag. The chorus alternates functions, by turns forming streetlights, the architecture of a train car or the furniture in Gomer and Hosea’s home, then instantly transitioning into the citizens of Chicago at rush hour, patrons and prostitutes at a night club or Hosea’s conscience as he questions his faith in Gomer and God.
Accompanying Gomer through the whole thing are dancers Lorianne Robertson and Libby Dennen, who trail her like an elegant residue. They echo Gomer’s every move, poking and prodding her and occasionally dancing with Hosea. Robertson and Dennen play Gomer’s intellect and subconscious, respectively, a sort of angel and devil on her shoulders that represent her moral compass.
All of the Gomer figures, four in all, wear a variation of purple and gray clothing, though it takes a bit to realize who’s who and what, exactly, is happening in the narrative. Slager trends toward uber-dense librettos; the relative simplicity of this story ultimately serves the ballet well. In fact, “Reckless” is Slager’s finest example of legible storytelling. The ballet begins to come together mid-way through the first act. Opsal captures an emotional arch I didn’t expect that matches his formidable dancing. Robertson and Dennen in particular grow throughout the ballet to show the mental and emotional turmoil Gomer undergoes.
That is exactly the point: to show a biblical woman as a multi-dimensional character and tell the story from her point of view. Details about Gomer are almost wholly absent from the Bible. Hosea is pitted as the one who must make really difficult decisions about whether or not to accept an unvirtuous woman. Redemption is a running theme in the book of Hosea.
That ballet, historically a vessel of beauty and classist opulence, is the vehicle for such a conversation provides an interesting juxtaposition. Ballet, of course, is no stranger to the subjugation of women; who can forget critic Siobhan Burke’s plea for “no more gang rape scenes in ballets please”?
“Reckless” is different, told by and from the perspective of women and well aware of what it’s doing as Gomer is exploited by her clients, by International Blue and even, at times, by Hosea. But while this Gomer and Hosea are more appropriately complex than their inspirations, “Reckless” is, at best, a PG, antiquated lens on sex work itself, framing prostitution as something that only happens in dingy nightclubs and on darkly lit Chicago street corners. Gomer, somehow, still feels judged and in need of saving, as though the agency lies within Hosea alone.
I don’t think Ballet 5:8 would label themselves as radical. I don’t think I would, either. Still, “Reckless’s” story, dizzying chorus and strong cast of characters specifically urge Christians and balletomanes to reframe conversations that concern women without considering or consulting them. Is that radical? Maybe it is.