Theatre in Review

The Joffrey Ballet closes its 2016-2017 Season with Global Visionaries featuring works of international ballet visionaries: Russian born choreographer Yuri Possokhov with The Miraculous Mandarin, Swedish choreographer Alexander Ekman with Joy, and Colombian-Belgian choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa with Mammatus.

The show opens with sexy, dark The Miraculous Mandarin. It’s a disturbing tale of a girl forced to act as a decoy by thugs, luring men into her room, only to be robbed and kicked out. The girl (immensely talented dancer Victoria Jaiani who moves with otherworldly grace and can possibly express just about any emotion with her body or even a subtle turn of the head) seduces men with her beauty, and then turns them over to her “friends” who finish the job. The wealthy mandarin (wonderfully performed by Yoshihisa Arai) is her last victim. He is cool and composed, like a Kung Fu master, but falls hard for the girl, and refuses to let go of her even when her deceitful nature is reveled to him. There’s nothing abstract about this performance: there’s an engaging plot, and all seven characters are extremely well developed; the brutality of the Chinese man’s murder is quite uncomfortable. Set to Bela Bartok’s score composed in 1918-1919, this “pantomime grotesque” was based on a magazine story of that time. Premiered November 27, 1926 in Cologne, Germany, it caused a scandal and was subsequently banned on moral grounds. Yuri Possokhov has created this work specifically for The Joffrey Ballet in collaboration with Cleveland Orchestra, which premiered in March 2016 in Cleveland. This is the Chicago premiere with Chicago’s own Philharmonic Orchestra, led by Joffrey Music Director Scott Speck providing live accompaniment on stage.

Here comes Joy! Alexander Ekman’s piece is original and playful, its delightful silliness reminiscent of a circus show. It opens with the stage brightly lit and slippery, crowded with dancers acting like happy children on a playground: they run and slide around, walk upside down, dance and act out while wearing suits. When prompted, everyone strips down to flesh colored underwear and things get even less serious. There’s a pack of gorgeous female ballerinas dropping their shoes on the floor in unison, like some bratty toddlers. They are childish and gracefully feminine, all at the same time. A very young audience member sitting next to me (she was around four-years-old) found the sketch very entertaining: she laughed the entire time. Joy is a ballet/ mixed media of sorts, with voice narration and the dancers having speaking parts. It’s unexpected, whimsical and energetic; a pure joy. Set to a mix of modern music featuring selections from Grammy-nominated Brad Meldau Trio, experimental rock band Django Django, Tiga’s pop hit Shoes, and Moby.

The final part of the event, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa‘s Mammatus, is a stimulating twenty-minute abstract piece featuring twenty dancers in a series of ensembles and duets. Right away, there’s a thunder on the stage, then the music begins ("Weather One" by composer Michael Gordon). The music is sharp and urgent, the frantic forceful strings giving it that old world quality. The costumes (designed by Dieuweke Van Reij) are stylishly black, enveloping dancers’ hands and making them look animal or bird-like. The dancers’ movements are precise and fast, there isn’t much emotion here, just breathtaking fluidity of ever changing shapes and positions. Towards the end, a dance pair clad in all white comes in; their dance is sensual and full of grace. Is it possible that the contrast between the colors and the styles of dancers allude to the duality of our reality: the good and evil, the light and darkness, the emotion and thought?

Joffrey’s Global Visionaries is being performed at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University: April 26-May 7, 2017. For more show information, or to purchase tickets, click here.  

 

Published in Dance in Review
Wednesday, 12 April 2017 14:27

The? Unicorn Hour? Come and Get Your Joy!

Leah Urzendowski and Anthony Courser have created a show that is part comedy, part play therapy that is truly a joy to behold. Don't skip the opening steps. When you enter the lobby, you will be asked to write down one of your fears and place it in an envelope. Then you will be asked to think of something that brings you Joy and bring that thought with you as you enter "The Joy Womb". The Neo Futurium has been cleverly lined with mismatched sheets, colored lights beneath to create a lovely, cozy joy womb effect. 

 

The? Unicorn? Hour? begins with an awesome light show in the "womb" accompanied by terrific music and sound effects to which Leah and Anthony (who are a couple in real life) enter wearing dark capes and much smoke, which is soon thrown off to show that they are actually dressed in beautifully crafted, silvery unitards as Unicorns of Joy! 

 

"The mighty rumpus that defeats the evil!" They cry out then ask if we are feeling scared, defeated etc. by what's going on in the world, inviting the audience to join them in their journey to transform fear into real joy. 

 

Both actors are fantastic physical comedians (having been creators together on the popular play "Burning Bluebeard", the unique show in which actors from the deathly 1903 Iroquois Theater fire where over 600 audience members were killed), and try to get through the show without killing their audience this time, as well. But Leah Urzendowski is a real dancer in every sense of the word, expressive, muscular, sensitive and flexible. Her dancing as the Unicorn takes the show into another realm of professionalism and put of pure clowning. 

 

There is a special guest from another show, I won't reveal because there will be a new special guest each week but this Eeyore-like character enters to the music "Lonely Boy" and the audience sees clearly that joy is a choice, as the pair tries to get him to cheer up using a bubble machine. He keeps insisting over and over, "Those bubbles are just gonna pop. There goes another one and another one, they are all popping!" 

 

There is a "swear square" where tensions are released by letting out swear words, but when Courser gets too carried away after starting off with innocent words like “dang” and “darn it” and the swearing turns mean and scary i.e. "I've got a bag of dicks and I'm going to stir it in a pot to make myself a dickwich to…," she eventually stops him. It's a tiny little feminist statement that many miss because in today's anything goes type of political correctness sometimes things just go too far in that dark "pornographic" way and women and children end up feeling threatened instead of empowered to express their own anger however gentle it may be. 

 

There is a fabulous physical bit where Courser pantomimes a journey to the top of a mountain that includes horseback riding, to flying, to parachuting to snow climbing among other fun-tastic feats. But as they both reach the top, the audience is suddenly enveloped in darkness and fear again. 

 

This is where the cast members come around and start asking us to name our fears and if we’d like to give them to the players to take away from us. Some of the fears in our audience were loneliness, fear of being alone in the dark, a pet or loved one dying, failure, never being more than I am now and drowning in cold water. But by the end of the show we are all asked to shout out our joys - the sound of a dog drinking water, a fresh piece of buttered toast, easy money, cuddling in bed all day, etc. and the room is restored to feelings of Joyous Surrender to the music and dancing these two have created. 

 

Their dance numbers really are both comical and extraordinarily demanding and professional, with the two winding about each other like seahorses made to fit as one beautiful, silvery creature with Leah's legs wrapped around Courser’s waist or even his neck as she peers out between his knees to whisper "JOY!" 

 

I have to say this is the MOST fun and joy I have had in recent years at any comedy in Chicago and promising an audience as stressed out as Chicago audience members are now by the political disasters and death unfolding around us every day, delivering a dose of real JOY in the theater world, is a REAL achievement! 

 

I highly recommend this hilarious, thought-provoking and most of all FUN, delightful, refreshing, exciting, comforting and colorful piece of work to anyone who is seeking to remember how to have a little joy in their lives right NOW. 

 

The? Unicorn? Hour? Runs just over an hour and is currently being performed at the Neo Futurium in Andersonville through May 13th (hopefully an extension will take place). For tickets and more show information visit www.neofuturist.org.

 

Published in Theatre in Review

 

 

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