Joffrey Ballet in Top Form as it Explores “Russian Masters”

September 21, 2013
Chicago Sun-Times Voices Blog
Hedy Weiss

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As reported last week, the Joffrey Ballet has been awarded a $500,000 matching grant by the Rudolf Nureyev Dance Foundation as an endowment toward the creation and production of story ballets. You need only take a look at the company’s altogether extraordinary “Russian Masters” program, at the Auditorium Theatre through Sept. 22 only, to understand why this is the ideal gift. This company is awash in superb dancers, but they are gifted actors as well, capable of suggesting the essence of a story even when dancing a seemingly abstract work.

Both the choreographers and composers on this program are Russian. But here’s an intriguing fact: All of them drew on their powerful roots in wildly different ways when living away from “home.”

Stravinsky and Nijinsky created ‘The Rite of Spring” a century ago, as emigres in Paris, drawing on ancient rituals of pagan Russia. Balanchine created “Allegro Brilliante” after settling in New York, bringing to it the classical technique of his early training but capturing the rapidfire speed of his adopted city, and setting it on his Native American muse, ballerina Maria Tallchief (who died earlier this year, and to whom this program is dedicated). Yuri Possokohov, formerly a Bolshoi Ballet dancer, and now resident choreographer with the San Francisco Ballet, created “Bells” and “Adagio” for dancers of the Joffrey Ballet, and though very modern in their movement, both works possess a larger-than-life, Bolshoi-like sensibility.

It was in 1987 that the Joffrey debuted dance historian Millicent Hodson’s remarkable restoration of Nijinsky’s “Rite,” a work that, unlike Stravinsky’s score, had more or less vanished, existing only in bits and pieces of archival material, photographs and drawings. The dance was, and remains, a revelation, and is one of the great treasures in the Joffrey rep. (The artful video that precedes the performance at the Auditorium provides a fine look at what was involved in its rebirth, including Kenneth Archer’s reconstruction of Nicholas Roerich’s brilliantly colored original costumes and sets.)

Accompanied by the Chicago Philharmonic — which, under the direction of Scott Speck, has become one of the finest ballet orchestras in the country — the Joffrey seizes hold of “Rite” with breathtaking intensity and wonderful attention to both the ensemble power of its tribal movement — full of jumps and ever-shifting circles — and its individually vivid characters. And when a group of men cloaked in massive bearskins circles around the Chosen One (Erica Lynette Edwards in a powerhouse performance as the sacrificed maiden), there is a sense of true terror. Joanna Wozniak’s Old Woman, and Miguel Blanco’s Old Sage captured the mystery and tradition in this riveting work that demonstrates this company can do anything.

Opening the program was the technically demanding “Allegro Brilliante,” to the music of Tchaikovsky, with the lovely central partnership between Jeraldine Mendoza and Dylan Gutierrez supported by four other couples. The men (Ogulcan Borova, John Mark Giragosian, Graham Maverick and Shane Urton) were especially notable for their synchrony.
Possokhov’s “Bells” (to various piano pieces by Rachmaninoff, played superbly by Mungunchimeg Buria and Kuang-Hao Huang), has grown richer and more intriguing than it seemed in its 2011 debut with the Joffrey. It is, at turns, mysterious and sexy, lyrical and bravura, ultra-contemporary, yet with a hint of Nijinsky about it at moments, too — qualities echoed by Sandra Woodall’s evocative costumes.

Complex lifts and flexed, pendulum-like legs were a recurring motif in this decidedly eclectic work. A trio of seemingly grieving, heartbroken women in white veils was particularly haunting. Anastacia Holden, a dancer of steel and exuberant confidence, was expertly partnered by Rory Hohenstein. Jacqueline Moscicke, an eye-catching redhead, set fire to her duets with the excellent Matthew Adamczyk. The pas de deux for Victoria Jaiani and Temur Suluashvili was ravishing — impossible difficult and beyond sexy. And along with dancers Alexis Polito, Shane Urton, Joanna Wozniak and Aaron Rogers, they all traded sweet, playful kisses in the final moments.

Jaiani and Suluashvili (the gorgeously matched real life husband-and-wife) also danced the electrifying “Adagio” Possokhov created for them, set to music from “Spartacus” by Aram Khatchaturian, and beautifully lit by Jack Mehler. The duet takes the form of a revery as a man 9perhaps imprisoned) appears to be visited by the vision of his beloved. With elaborate lifts and a complex, sinuous interweaving of bodies, there is an intimacy here that is at once thrilling in its eroticism and artistry. The ideally matched physical beauty and technique of this couple is really something to behold.