Joffrey Ballet tips hat to Balanchine and modern choreographers

August 24, 2011
REVIEW by Post-Gazette
Jane Vranish


CUYAHOGA FALLS, Ohio -- For most of its 50-plus years, the Joffrey Ballet shied away from the repertoire that George Balanchine built at the New York City Ballet, because the company spent its early years virtually on the same urban turf.

Enter artistic director Ashley Wheater in 2007.

Mr. Wheater has not been shy about putting his stamp on the Chicago-based company. Where the Joffrey was known for its American style and historical reconstructions, it is now moving in a contemporary global direction.

But the program at Blossom Music Center on Saturday, in partnership with the Cleveland Orchestra, was indeed an American program -- only it didn't include any ballets by founder Robert Joffrey or his successor, Gerald Arpino.

Instead, the audience found a new contingent of names. Besides Mr. Balanchine, who was represented by two ballets, "Stravinsky Violin Concerto" and "Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux," the evening included lush modern dance master Lar Lubovitch's "Othello Pas de Deux," West Coast artist Julia Adam's "Night" and current choreographic darling of the ballet world, Christopher Wheeldon, with "After the Rain."

It is pleasing to note that Mr. Balanchine's work remains as innovative as ever in comparison to today's choreographers, even though both of the Blossom Center works were almost ancient history (1972 and 1960) by today's standards. And Mr. Wheater's respect was such that he placed them at the end of the program.

The violin concerto, played with a robust intelligence by Cleveland associate concertmaster Jung-Min Amy Lee, is not only one of Mr. Balanchine's signature black-and-white ballets, but also one of his masterworks in a long collaboration with the Russian composer.

The New York City Ballet recently performed it as part of its three-part series on those striking ballets at Kennedy Center. That company treated Stravinsky's work as a metaphor for life, transitioning his abstract compositional angularities into something by turns sleek and sophisticated, willfully knotted and, to balance it all, sprinkled with a dash of humor gleaned from a jaunty orchestral staccato. So New York.

The Joffrey cast put, shall we say, more pizazz into the piece, and it stood up brilliantly amid the dancers' obvious delight with the choreography, picking through the score with unexpected wiggles, bumps and, at the end, a stylized folk dance. The men, in particular, had a clean athleticism that was particularly well suited to this piece.

The Cleveland Orchestra, led by conductor Tito Munoz, was at full traditional and sumptuous force during the Tchaikovsky pas de deux, performed by April Daly and Dylan Gutierrez, who were able to ride the ensemble's musical tidal waves with a dazzling brio. And while the brief look at "Othello" had Ms. Daly working through almost acrobatic moves before its dramatic finish, Fabrice Calmels brought a combined sense of power and tragedy to his Shakespearean interpretation.

The Balanchine connection was not finished, for Mr. Wheeldon spent some significant time with NYCB as a dancer and resident choreographer; the influences could not be denied. Certainly, Mr. Wheeldon has the imagination and creativity of Mr. Balanchine, but he has developed his own voice.

In "After the Rain," he conveyed the atmosphere found in music by Arvo Part, first with six dancers in gray, then with Mr. Calmels in a glowing duet with Victoria Jiaiani, the reigning ballerina in the company. The music was transparent, the movement softly caressing. It was one of those rare moments, so private for a large facility, that the audience held its collective breath.

It all began, though, with Ms. Adam's "Night," a ballet that was inspired by Marc Chagall's dreamscape paintings, where objects, animals and human beings, or their parts, often float. Actually it was a quite lovely journey, led by diminutive Anastacia Holden, so in contrast with tall Mr. Gutierrez (something that is rarely emphasized in ballet), and the impetus for a fantastical journey.

There were men in gray swirling ruffled pants and women in skirts, often surrounding and supporting her like a mist. They billowed and pulled at her, flying and falling. And at the end, she took a leap into darkness.

While this collaboration seemed to feature orchestra compositions more last year, the 2011 program put the emphasis on the choreography. But that doesn't mean that there was an imbalance.

With the dance providing a stunning visual display, the orchestra still made its musical points brilliantly, even in the most private moments. Here's to 2012!


Former Post-Gazette critic Jane Vranish can be reached at jvranish1 [at] comcast [dot] net. She blogs at