Anyone who has seen the Joffrey Ballet perform in recent seasons knows that it is dancing better than ever. But with “Human Landscapes,” its current program of three works, the company demonstrates that it easily can go head-to-head (or foot-to-foot) with the finest of this city’s actors, too. The Joffrey has long been renowned for possessing something beyond exceptional technique. And with this demanding and very different mix of works, dancers have been given powerful opportunities to use their dramatic abilities.
“Forgotten Land,” the mysterious opening piece, is the work of the masterful European choreographer Jiri Kylian. Set to a stormy score by Benjamin Britten, it was inspired by an Edvard Munch painting of women staring out at the sea. Here, six couples are sequentially swept up in a vast array of moods: Entwined in a sense of loss, filled with grief or foreboding, charged with excitement, enfolded in love. Primarily an elaborate series of complex, serpentine, strong yet lyrical duets, there also is a sense of communal connection here, with all the phases of human existence being played out simultaneously against a unifying seascape.
The dancing of Friday night’s cast was rapturous — with Victoria Jaiani and Miguel Angel Blanco as the couple filled with anxiety; Joanna Wozniak and Lucas Segovia anguished, yet fiercely connected; April Daly and Yoshihisa Arai thrilling in their speed and forcefulness, and Christine Rocas and Rory Hohenstein beyond rapturous in their delicate yet sensual pairing. There also was exquisite dancing by Dara Holmes and Mauro Villanueva and Anastacia Holden and Aaron Rogers. (John F. MacFarlane’s costumes were exceptionally stunning.)
High-flying dynamism and pure technical power are essential qualities in James Kudelka’s “pretty BALLET,” which was created for the company in 2010 and is set to Bohuslav Martinu’s rather bombastic but driving Symphony No. 2. The dancers charged into it with all the unbridled relish it demands. So did the Chicago Philharmonic (conducted by Scott Speck), which, incidentally, is a sensational partner for the company.
Kudelka begins his ballet with a group of sylphs in long, white tulle skirts (Yumelia Garcia, Elizabeth Hansen, Amber Neumann, Abigail Simon, Rocas and Wozniak). But these are not your usual ethereal spirits; they are women with speed, momentum and attack. And they are met by fiery partners (Matthew Adamcyzk, Michael Smith, Temur Suluashvili and Villanueva), all setting the breathless pace for the grand swirls of movement to come.
A long, complex and spectacular duet between Jaiani and Blanco follows, with the spellbinding Jaiani briefly transformed from woman (in white gown and crimson pointe shoes) to automaton. Then comes a hard-driving but playful section for five men, with the sensational John Mark Giragosian in the lead. The ballet’s fourth movement pushes the dancers to the limit, and the company responds in kind. This is contemporary classical ballet that puts real punch into the “pretty.”
Finally, the piece de resistance: Kurt Jooss’ “The Green Table,” the 1932 German Expressionist work about dithering, ineffectual, self-absorbed diplomats who gather at a summit and end up declaring war — a war in which Death (danced with a chillingly benign conviction by the towering Fabrice Calmels) invariably has the last word as he enfolds his victims. Now 80 years old, Jooss’ ballet (expertly staged by Jeanette Vondersaar) feels as if it might have been choreographed an hour ago.
All the archetypes of war’s casualties are here, but the Joffrey dancers put distinctive stamps on them, with April Daly achingly exhausted as the Old Mother; Temur Suluashvili fleet and sinister as the Profiteer; Anastacia Holden exceptionally moving as the Young Girl lured into a brothel; Erica Lynette Edwards as the determined Partisan, Dylan Gutierrez as the Standard Bearer and Matthew Adamcyzk and Graham Maverick as the lead soldiers. But the entire cast has found its way into the very demanding language of Jooss’ “dance of death” — a work of dance theater in its purest and most distilled form.
Applause, too, for pianists Mungunchimeg Buriad and Paul James Lewis, who brought all the necessary percussiveness to F.A. Cohen’s unrelenting score.
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