Joffrey’s refreshing skip 'Across the Pond' has dreamy lyricism, then grapples with patriotism

The Joffrey Ballet’s “Across the Pond,” at the Auditorium Theatre through May 5th, treats audiences to a refreshing gallery of sounds, textures, and distinctively different choreographic voices in its showcase of three emerging Brittish innovators.

The Joffrey dancers complement the sleek, contemporary flavor of the evening with razor-sharp dancing and a collective level of performing radiance that marks the company as an ensemble of stars.

Brilliant lighting design by Jack Mehler (“Yonder Blue” and “Home”) and Michael Hulls (“Vespertine”), and live music by the Chicago Philharmonic under the always superb direction of conductor Scott Speck are integral partners contributing to the artistic whole. The program of two world premieres and one Joffrey premiere brings inventive movement to the varied energy, mood, and visual design of each piece.

Mehler’s blue-hued white-box canvas for “Yonder Blue” (world premiere) creates an airy world outside of time and place for the pointy geometrics of Andrew McNicol’s choreography. Composer Peter Gregson’s swirling flutes and lush melodic undertow of cello lines ripple through the dancers like a bubbling brook. Straight-bodied lifts ascend like exclamation points; sharp second-position pliés, sudden split-leaps, and the swoon of occasional back arches fly in exquisite precision inside this walled garden of earthly delights. A soulful cello and bass aria accompanies Victoria Jaiani and Rory Hohenstein’s achingly gorgeous duet, danced with the poignance of a dramatic relationship. Contracting and arching into each other’s body, wrapping around and unfolding from themselves, there is an almost tragic reckoning of the ephemeral nature of time and human contact. Jaiani’s artistry extends beyond extensions, as her legs become the voice of her soul, her spine spilling the very essence of life’s blood into her partner’s arms. Hohenstein brings depth and maturity to a stunning dramatic role with far more choreographic weight than the conventional cavalier prince to the ballerina. It is especially satisfying to see this superb dramatic dancer in a role that demands the full range of his considerable artistry. In “Blue Yonder,” McNicol and the Joffrey have a rare gem of a ballet that transcends the here and now in a salute to air and space and something else beyond time.

Liam Scarlett’s “Vespertine” (2013) sets a baroque tone on contemporary moves, with more than a nod to pre-classic court dance forms and music. A bare-chested master of ceremonies could be Shakespeare’s Prospero welcoming the audience to the festivities with a rippling spine and reverential bow. The elegant blend of conventional ballet with baroque dance and modern swoons and contractions creates a rich palette of movement relationships. Especially powerful is a magnificent same-gender duet that maximizes the strength and beauty of the male body. Scarlett’s own costume designs pair deep crimson gowns and frock coats with nude bodysuits in an inside/outside courtship of bodies that explores the nature of intimacy. The women’s full, split-skirt dresses become both prop and visual design as they swirl, reveal, expose and enclose. Scarlett’s keen attention to the music is reflected in his use of spatial counterpoint, with two quartets of dancers diagonally opposite each other in rhythmic canon, or super-imposed on each other in a domino line. The music, replete with strings and even a lute, is visually alive in the orchestration of body parts, with an attenuated gesture of the arm across the body as if bowing a human cello. The dancers almost seem to play each other as musical instruments in the intricate ebb and flow of ensemble and duets. The fall and recovery of sideways dips, arms in overhead arcs, and flowing, breathy movement style add a lyrical flavor to much of the movement, which is at once sexy and sculptural.

Andrea Walker’s “Home” (world premiere) contrasts the other-worldly modern time-scape of “Blue Yonder” and the dreamy lyricism of “Vespertine” with a hard-driving rock beat, jazz moves, and dancers in t-shirts, sweat pants, and sneakers. A voice-over of children reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and an automaton-like percussive gesture sequence with hands on hearts tells us right off the bat that this is about the hypocrisy of patriotism and the toxic nature of group-think. “Home” is about the exclusion of immigrants from access to the American Dream. The Joffrey dancers cut loose in Walker’s electrifying ballet blend of jazz and street dance, with exciting sequences of group moves against the isolating bewilderment of Fernando Duarte’s solo as the outsider. Strobe lights, deep shafts of white light on black space, and the repeated migrations of oblivious pedestrians passing him as they march back and forth across the stage emphasize his isolation and the emotional intensity of his exclusion from their ranks. A lone individual seeking human contact in a world of rote repetition and conformity, Duarte’s character finds a kindred heart in Fabrice Calmels. Their duet moves them from friendship to a romantic relationship which the conformists reject, separating them. Duarte’s explosive solo is an emotional and technical tour de force that brings “Home” its message. With all the good ideas afloat in this work, Walker over-states his message and teeters close to the edge of being trite with a prolonged reunion of the two men, where over-long stillness substitutes for movement invention. Choreographic language might otherwise have illuminated and deepened our sense of their relationship with visual specifics, as we got in the inspired same-gender duet of “Vespertine.” Instead, their intimate stillness, which was supposed to speak for itself, didn’t really speak at all and had the effect of hitting us over the head with meaning: the world of “Home” is not home to everyone. Still, Walker is a choreographer to watch, and all “Home” may need to realize its full potential is a little seasoned editing and investing more of the creativity he brought to Duarte’s magnificent solo in the story of his and Calmels' duet.