On Wednesday April 27th the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago premiered its spring program—a split bill consisting of the company debut of George Balanchine’s “Serenade” and the world premiere of Cathy Marston’s adaptation of John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men.” The two works ran for a total of two hours, but it passed in the blink of an eye. Visions of suspended tulle whipping furiously around the stage and haunting images of grayscale murder scenes linger in my mind, so divided in aesthetic yet bonded in brilliance. The Joffrey Ballet’s team perfectly balances the technical phantasms of yesteryear with the pivotally contemporary movement of today.
The decision to open the program with Balanchine’s “Serenade” is unabashedly perfect. The curtain rises to reveal sixteen beautiful ballerinas sporting ankle-length, baby-blue tulle skirts that fulfill every young ballet-lover’s tutu fantasy. The company does an enthralling job of showcasing what can only be described as the most refined, picturesque technique imaginable—elongated arabesques, confident pirouettes, clear port de bras, and flawlessly pointed feet.
Originally choreographed in 1934, “Serenade” is Balanchine’s first ballet created in America. It is hypnotically satisfying to watch if you are a lover of ballet in its most straightforward form. At times the piece reads as distant, emotionless, even cold, but I don’t believe the work was meant to connect with people in a heartfelt way. Not driven by any clear narrative, it is an ode to every bourrée, battement, and ballotté.
Following a brief intermission—and a complete change in set design—the world premiere of Marston’s page-to-stage “Of Mice and Men” silenced the audience in its opening image. The Lyric Opera of Chicago’s theater looked enormous, housing a sparse grayscale set with one, slim vertical plank running from floor to beyond the ceiling. Red silk, makeshift cloth bunnies, and full-sized benches are but some of the intricate and vital props used throughout the work—I worried there would be cliché or predictable choreography to match, and I was happily proved wrong.
Admittedly, I have never read “Of Mice and Men”—something that will be remedied shortly as a self-proclaimed literature lover. I did google a brief synopsis of the storyline so as not to go into it completely unaware, but I would venture to say that is not a necessary step to fully grasp and connect with the narratively driven dance. At moments in the performance, I expected the dancers to burst into song or begin an intense dialogue as if it were a musical or play and not a work of dance. The performers’ inherent ability to convey both emotion and story was masterful, and pleasantly surprising given the unaffected air of “Serenade.”
From the score to the costuming the work was simple, yet intensely profound. Marston’s ballet takes quick-witted George and loyal Lennie from Steinbeck’s 1937 novel and expands it beyond the words originally written. Most notably, the choice to cast two dancers as George—Xavier Núñez and Alberto Velazquez—brought a profoundly heartfelt air to the work. It was as though we were seeing everything unfold in real-time and in playback, as if it were a memory. Each dancer mirroring the other despite the fact one was surrounded by secondary characters and the other was clearly reliving it alone.
Choreographically speaking, “Of Mice and Men'' allowed the company to utilize the traditional ballet technique they so expertly showed off in “Serenade” while also toying with a more playful, contemporary side. Intricate floorwork, suspended inversions, and complex partnerwork were sprinkled throughout the piece and performed expertly by the male-dominated cast. Yet, it was Amanda Assucena, performing the role of Curley’s Wife, who captivated with smile-inducing sass, gorgeous lines, and jaw-droppingly perfect arches as she moved through compellingly straightforward phrase work.
As the curtain closed, I sat in my seat with an undeniable sense of satisfaction. The Joffrey Ballet’s spring program is exactly what it needs to be—technical, transportive, and terrific. I want to give credit where credit is due since the company of brilliant dancers are what make the two distinct works feel so cohesive. The dancers across the board are strong, driving forces that only further elevate what we have come to expect from the Joffrey over the past 60 years.
See the Joffrey perform “Serenade” and “Of Mice and Men” through May 8th at the Lyric Opera House. With an assortment of matinees and evening performances, the ten total shows range in price, from $35 to $199, and can be purchased here.