Last night, March 7th, at the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Joffrey Academy presented it’s Choreographers of Color showcase, Winning Works. Despite a spirited audience and a warm welcome by MCA’s Director of Performance Programs, Peter Taub, a technical snafu with what Saturday’s audience can only assume was supposed to be a video about the Joffrey trainee program, set the tone for an evening that continued to lose steam (though that’s not to say that the post-performance talk and gala with the dancers following the show weren’t riveting; I’ll never know, as I was unable to stay).
Arguably the best performance of the evening came in the very first piece, Windy Sand. Alexei Kremnev, Joffrey Academy Artistic Director, and choreographer of Sand took inspiration for this piece from his observations of Lake Michigan. Of the four pieces in the program, Sand does the best at highlighting the young dancers’ incredible technical ability, making each dancer in the piece look polished and mature with an elegant, balletic style. It is apparent that these dancers are used to dancing in this choreographic style and are practiced at its performance. Windy Sand is a strong opener and the only piece on the bill that is not a world premiere.
Next on the program is New York based Jennifer Archibald’s Our North. Employing gender neutral camel colored tunic costumes, the slender bodies of the young dancers, male and female alike, blend and converge in gender-non-traditional ways; a breath of fresh air in a show that otherwise sticks to the archetypal gender roles of ballet. This coupling of female duets, male duets, and females taking on traditionally “male” tasks (lifting, and manipulating), though not a new idea, holds interest, almost more than the choreography itself in Our North. Choreographically, Our North is exciting to watch but a little underwhelming as set on these particular dancers.
Providing the first moment of true interest for me A Year From Now Ago strays far from the other “concert-dance-y” work and presents the only truly unique morsel in this fairly traditional contemporary-ballet-heavy program. Invoking a sterile feeling with obvious allusion to hospital garb (surgical hair nets, gauze gowns, and a patient wrapped up on a table), the imagery is not “trying to be”, it just is. Music provides a rub that makes me antsy and irritated, though I have a strong hunch that this is the point. Video projections by choreographer, Abdul Latif and tastefully gaudy black costumes on a select corps give this piece quizzical moments. While I’m still perplexed and confused, asking, “What was that?” and, “What was it supposed to mean?”, I appreciate Latif for providing a unique stand-out piece in a program of much sameness.
Rounding out the night is Non é Normale by River North alumna, Stephanie Martinez. Invoking the jazzy style of Martinez, the dancers shine in this piece more so than in Archibald’s earlier hip-hop infused work. They look less uncomfortable in their execution of these steps. A duet with bits of physical humor is a fun if not random snippet in this work and is choreographically strong but perhaps miscast as weak performances miss the mark on characterization and embodiment.
Overall, the small criticisms above are nothing more than nit-picking at a strong performance by young, talented dancers with a limited amount of time to work with new choreographers, digest unfamiliar movement vocabulary, and vie for competitive casting.
As I left the theater, my habit of jumping to the immediate “find something to look at critically” was undercut by appreciation for taking chances. Winning Works is important for development, growth, and experimentation, and perhaps many of the small “problems” I found with this show were actually direct results of this experimentation, risk taking, and recalibration, and in the end I can’t criticize that.
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