These days, perhaps more than ever, ballet companies are like sharks: they must keep moving or die. But even as they look toward the future, they ignore or forget ballet's long history at their peril.
The Joffrey Ballet's "Russian Masters" program has more to do with the company's own long history of planting one foot in tradition and the other in rebellion than with Mother Russia. Though all three choreographers trained there, they became ex-pats — and ballet insurgents. In an uncharacteristically short run of four works spanning 100 years, the Joffrey proves once again its versatility and its dancers' chameleonic skills.
The newest piece, Yuri Possokhov's 2012 "Adagio," is the dance version of extreme sports. This Chicago premiere, a duet set to Aram Khachaturian's familiar "Spartacus" adagio, makes bronzed gods of married partners Victoria Jaiani and Temur Suluashvili. Skimpy gold costumes reveal taut, sinewy legs and washboard abs. More significant is the fiendish partnering, which ranges from athletic tosses and catches to interlocking actions as intricate as a Chinese puzzle. Jaiani's legs are often open and superhumanly extended, the calipers that define this world's circumference. Smaller moments — as when he folds her arms over her head, then runs his open palms down the sides of her body — establish emotion. At other times "Adagio" suggests the woman is being drawn and quartered.
Possokhov, a former Bolshoi dancer, is resident choreographer at the innovative San Francisco Ballet, and his 2011 Joffrey commission — "Bells," back for this engagement — reveals his full technical and emotional range. As moody as its Rachmaninoff dual-piano scores, it opens with five couples rocking in time with the pealing "Paques" ("Easter"). That bittersweet combination of joy and melancholy colors the entire eight-section suite. The hooded figures in a female trio seem widows mourning their lost men, while the final duet, exquisitely performed by Jaiani and Suluashvili, combines passion with conflict.
The ecstatic bursts of George Balanchine's 1956 "Allegro Brillante," acquired by Robert Joffrey just six years later, seem a bit tame today. But refreshingly, the woman-led utopia he depicts casts love as the underpinning for community. April Daly — following in the footsteps of Maria Tallchief, who originated the role — softens flawless technique with a breathing relaxation that shines through her nearly constant yet natural smile. Dylan Gutierrez is Daly's unfailing squire.
Millicent Hodson's painstaking reconstruction of Vaslav Nijinsky's 1913 "Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring)" for the Joffrey is perhaps its finest achievement. Stravinsky's music personifies the life force in all its inexorable cruelty, while Nijinsky's bold strokes paint a picture of a dark, ruthless community. Following a 22-city national tour, the Joffrey brings "Rite" home; Joanna Wozniak as the Chosen One brilliantly combines vulnerability and supernatural strength.
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When: Through Sept. 22
Where: Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University, 50 E. Congress Pkwy.
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes
Tickets: $31-$152 at 800-982-2787 or ticketmaster.com
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