"Human Landscapes" Dance Review

October 18, 2012
Time Out Chicago
Matthew de la Peña

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It really is the digital age. After a ten minute mini-documentary of behind-the-scenes footage of the company (a little out of place, at least, for my taste) Joffrey opened its season last night at the Auditorium with a trio of heavyweights: In “Human Landscapes” we got Jirí Kylián, James Kudelka and Kurt Jooss; choreographers with proven track records of success (an understatement if there ever was one), whose long-standing works (save for Kudelka, who premiered Pretty Ballet in 2010) are now judged by the dancers doing the dancing, and not necessarily the choreography. But up to the task is this generation’s wildly talented crop of Joffrey dancers, who exemplify the quintessential Joffrey-isms of quirky playfulness and vitality, as much as Robert Joffrey intended. They show no fear in what they do. And let’s not forget the Chicago Philharmonic, who almost stole the show at times.

The night opens with Kylián’s Forgotten Land, which takes inspiration from the unpredictable patterns of the ocean. In syncopated steps, with big arms and deep second plies, the tension slowly builds to an awesome peak. It’s Kylián at his best, bridging between catastrophe and serenity. The dancers oblige with big leaps, quick spots and a pulsing rhythm that mimics the undulation of waves, the pushes and pulls, the sways and calms. In separated couples, dressed in various colors of red, black and white, the dancers are the sea incarnate, mimicking its volatility with comparable qualities. (Bigger waves call for bigger leaps, etc.)

In Kudelka’s Pretty Ballet, the perfections are found in the imperfect idiosyncrasies. And that’s not a slight at the dancers. Quite the opposite. In fact, the suggestion of a “pretty ballet,” rather than say “beautiful ballet,” is perhaps a note from Kudelka, that pretty is by far more welcoming, warming and interesting than beautiful could ever be. Beautiful can be stuck up, but pretty is of the sweet variety, unabashed and adventurous. It shows in Kudelka’s quick-paced blend of classical technique and contemporary shifts, bends, stops and starts, which ultimately charms in its whimsy. Abetted by the music of Bohuslav Martinu, the score evokes an eerie Danny Elfman-like anticipation of spine-tingling magic.

Finally, the piece de resistance: Kurt Jooss’s masterpiece The Green Table. A cordial, yet maniacal, group of huxsters/diplomats gloat in their power-hungry ways; all the while, “Death” looms in the background. Unbridled, nonsensical greed becomes tragically envisioned and carried forth in the form of impending war. “Death” is suited for the part. Big and strong-jawed, its mannerisms are both ruthless and forgiving from beginning to end. And what a tragic end it is, with a cycle of arrogance that ultimately repeats itself at the end. It's what makes the piece so timeless. What’s more impressive is the dramatic acting of the performers, in a piece that requires thespian abilities to equal the dance technique on display. And thankfully, no post-show documentary in sight. Just the dancers and good ol' fashioned (much-deserved) curtain calls.

"Human Landscapes" continues through October 28 at the Auditorium Theatre. Go to auditoriumtheatre.org for tickets.