Contemporary dance is an art form like any other. As a style of dance it is much more of a philosophy than a strict technique like, say, traditional ballet or modern. Rather, it draws inspiration from both techniques and creates an entirely different experience for the audience. Much like art, the beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Whether you are a fan of contemporary dance or not, you should take the time away from the bitter winter cold and venture into the Auditorium Theatre to experience The Joffrey Ballet’s presentation of Contemporary Choreographers.
Like many of the contemporary showcases performed by The Joffrey, Contemporary Choreographers is split into three productions: Crossing Ashland, Continuum, and Episode 31. Let’s quickly cover off on some highlights; Episode 31, the final performance in the series choreographed by Alexander Ekman, is actually quite fun. It can adequately be described as a dramatic playground, bringing a youthful approach to dance with a touch of humor; no seriously, people were laughing along to the performances.
The second performance in the series is Continuum, choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon. This was the least entertaining performance for me; I would equate the performance as a whole as looking a blank white canvas in an art museum with a title like “Block 39.” To many, they would draw a profound and ethereal message from the blank white canvas, while others might see just a white canvas, blank and without meaning. Many of those in the audience gave Continuum a standing ovation, but to me the performance lacked a story and with it a reason to enjoy and watch it. Then again, it followed one of the best contemporary pieces I would safely say is the most enjoyable contemporary performance I’ve ever seen, so I am slightest biased.
Throughout the opening piece called Crossing Ashland, choreographed by Brock Clawson, dancers in streets clothes created the vision of pedestrians passing each other on the street, walking briskly back and forth across the stage. These stoics in street clothes turned expressive when they stripped away their outer layers of clothing and exposed the vulnerability of their inner selves. Crossing, the dancers showed us what we look like; dancing, they showed us the enormity of what we feel. The performances’ emotions were palpable to the audience and after each dancer took the stage you begged them to say longer. The dancers themselves were drop-dead, makes-you-want-to-go-workout, idol-worthy specimens, each and every muscle working to show their emotions. In lament terms, they were hot.
So what makes Crossing Ashland special? It’s the fact that the dance is so relatable, so understandable to the audience; two people pass on the street, their hands touching slightly, longingly, but then they part. So much is said in those moments without saying a word, and when two dancers portraying their emotions take the stage and perform a deeply passionate interpretation of breaking-up and making-up, you are captivated. Crossing Ashland could easily be made into a full length production and take the stage for a full two hours and no one would be bored. And more importantly, it could introduce an entirely new generation to contemporary choreography that isn’t limited to what one sees on televised dance shows or in the movies.
So cross Wabash Avenue and make your way to the Auditorium Theatre to see Contemporary Choreographers. The show runs through February 23rd. It is a breath of fresh air to a modern style of dance that will hopefully leave you breathless.
Twas a cold winter evening,
On the way to the Auditorium theatre,
For a performance quite grand.
The guests took their seats,
The stage decked in splendor,
Anxiously awaiting their journey,
Expecting ballerinas so tender.
Then up went the music,
And down went the lights,
As we were whisked away
To the Nutcracker that night.
All know the story,
The Nutcracker’s tale,
From the grand ball to the Sugar Plum Fairy,
Danced by a young Mikhail (Barishnikov ;-) )
The Joffrey performed the ballet,
With intricate care,
To keep with traditions,
So all ages could share.
Spanish Chocolate, Arabian Coffee,
Chinese Tea and Russian Candy,
Danish Marzipan, Mother Ginger,
It was all just dandy!
But the waltz of the snowflakes
And the waltz of the flowers,
Is where this ballet
Holds all of its power.
The dancers on pointe,
In their tutus and tights,
Twirling and leaping,
Twas a majestic sight.
The Joffrey Ballet is performing,
A holiday tale to remember,
For all to enjoy,
While it runs through December.
So off to The Joffrey!
Don’t miss it this year,
Fill up your holiday,
With Nutcracker cheer!
You could attribute this week’s hot and humid temps to Chicago’s ever changing fall weather, but anyone who saw the Joffrey Ballet’s performance of “Russian Masters” will definitively tell you it was this performance that brought the heat wave into the Chicago city limits.
“Russian Masters” featured four pieces: “Allegro Brillante” choreography by George Balachine, “Adagio” and “Bells” both choreographed by Yuri Possokhov, and “Le Sarce du Printemps” choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky. Of the four performances, one will leave you hot under the collar, while the others will simply leave you hot and bothered.
“Allegro Brillante” and “Bells” were beautiful ballets within their own right. For those who don’t know ballet, Balachine is essentially the father of American ballet. In one word, his style can be described as classic. Picture a ballerina in your mind and the way she would dance, yep that’s the style. Flawless, graceful, lithe techniques, clean lines, beautiful and elegant duets, that is a Balachine ballet and “Allergro Brillante” shined on stage, bringing the audience into its gentle embrace. “Bells,” choreographed by Yuri Possokhov was equally graceful and beautiful. Set to seven Rachmaninoff compositions that included some flawlessly executed duets it was all in all was just a good performance, not one that left you wanting more. It is evident within “Bells” that Possokhov is clearly at his best when it comes to duets.
His choreographed duet “Adagio,” performed by husband and wife team Victoria Jaiani and Temur Suluashvili left the entire audience in heat. It is my claim that Jaiani and Suluashvili’s performance required the theater to turn the air conditioning up. Their performance was filled with fiery passion and sensuality, with intricate skills and lifts that would leave a cirque du soleil performer impressed. They were the only performers of the night to receive a standing ovation and once you see the performance live, you too will be ready to jump from your seat and yell “Bravo!”
Cut to the final performance of the night.
Now forget everything you know about ballet, the tutus, the pointy toes, and the gorgeous ballerinas. All of the stereotypes in your head will be torn down and stomped on (almost literally) during the course of this performance. The final piece of the evening was “Le Sacre du Printemps” (Rite of Spring). A brief history: when “Le Sacre” first premiered in Paris in 1913, the performance shocked the sophisticated Parisian audience so entirely that they literally rioted in the theater. That’s right folks, rioted. Russian composer Igor Stravinsky’s haunting music set the audience on edge with loud drumming and bassoons, while Vaslav Nijinsky’s jagged, raucous, and barbaric ‘dancing’ depicting a virgin sacrifice, caused the audience to get so angry that they began catcalling and jeering at the performers, drowning out the orchestra music. In retrospect, it is apparent that Parisians paying to see a beautiful, graceful ballet were not prepared or welcoming to such an avant guarde piece.
While there was no rioting in Chicago on Thursday night, there was plenty of seat shifting, awkward glances from neighbor to neighbor, and an overall uncomfortable air from the audience. But that really was the point of the whole performance. Even in today’s society, with all matter of modern art forms around us, “Le Sacre du Printemps” still leaves audiences questioning what exactly it was they saw. Was it art? Was it ballet? You be the judge.
“Russian Masters” truly was one of the best compilations the Joffrey has put on since I have been in Chicago. The juxtaposition of soft, classical ballet in the first three performances against the brutality and harshness of "Le Sacre du Printemps" highlighted the wide range of talent that the Russian masters possessed. Hurry down to the Auditorium Theater as the show ends on September 22nd. Dasvidaniya, comrades.
There is just something about the ballet; the people watching (it’s a very entertaining crowd), the glass of bubbly before the show starts, the curtain rising, the live orchestra playing, and of course the ballet dancers that make the most difficult of feats seem effortless. Unfortunately, like previous performances I’ve seen at the Joffrey, the most recent performance of “Othello” left me wanting more.
Once again, Joffrey loyalists will roll their eyes when I tell them I was disappointed by the “Othello” performance. This was a completely original ballet based off of a great Shakespearean tragedy and it should have been amazing. The short teaser trailer of the performance on the Joffrey’s website was dramatic and foreboding. On the other hand, as the show began, I knew immediately that I would be left wanting. Let me first say that the dancing was beautiful. The main dancers, Othello played by Fabrice Calmels and Desdemona played by April Daly, were graceful, strong, and fluid, and exactly what you’d expect in the principal dancers. Sadly, great dancers can only do so much with what they are given, and I don’t think they were learnt much in the ways of choreography and music. The music alone was enough to make someone dislike the show. Imagine an entire 2 hour performance with drums and strings building and building and taking forever to reach a crescendo and when it does nothing happens on stage to match the power behind those notes. I equate it to sitting in a scary movie, the music building your expectations to a state of uncontrollable suspense, just waiting for the killer to jump out and attack, only to have the loud crash usually tied to a scary moment to be someone yawning on screen. What a letdown, right?
Also, the choreography was a bit too in-your-face-foreshadowing of the tumultuous and ultimately grim lover’s tale. If you went through high school and college never having read Othello or seeing the movie O, then perhaps the references weren’t so easy to pick up on, but for those of us who know the story it was about as blunt as an axe to the head. At times the duets between Othello and Desdemona just consisted of him lifting her and tossing her around like a gracefully beautiful sack of potatoes, his hands and arms lingering around her neck for an awkwardly long time. Outside of those dancers, the solos of Cassio and Iago, played by Aaron Rogers and Matthew Adamcyzk respectfully, were beautiful, but the jealousy that eventually drives Iago to his dastardly acts was so jagged and rough that it took away from the grace of a great dancer. The character of Iago seethes with jealousy, hatred, and envy but it didn’t translate as powerfully as it could have in the dancing and he ended up looking like a petulant child. All in all, the entire ballet performance was lukewarm for such a heated storyline.
So why go back? Why keep going to the ballet if I’m not going to enjoy it? It’s because I believe in this art and want to be blown away each and every time. Some of the dance companies in Chicago without nearly the endowment the Joffrey has, have left me speechless and simply blown away by their performances. I suppose I just expect the same from a company with such amazing talent as the Joffrey. So I will still go, and still hope for a performance that takes my breath away and leaves me saying ‘O.’