The Joffrey Ballet triumphs in Christopher Wheeldon's "Swan Lake"

October 16, 2014
The Chicago Sun-Times
Hedy Weiss


The Joffrey Ballet production of Christopher Wheeldon’s altogether fascinating reimagining of “Swan Lake” is a monumental achievement on every level, and an altogether stunning way to celebrate the company’s 20th anniversary in Chicago.

The beauty and ingenuity of Wheeldon’s work filled the stage of the Auditorium Theatre at Wednesday’s opening night performance, where the ballet received a flawlessly danced Joffrey debut before a packed house whose hushed concentration ultimately erupted in cries of “Bravo” inspired by the dancers’ bravura technique and artful characterizations. This marks the Joffrey’s first ever production of ballet’s most demanding classic in its nearly six-decade history, and the company met the challenge in a remarkable way.

Theater directors continually reinvent the classics, from the ancient Greeks, to Shakespeare and Chekhov, finding contemporary hooks for universal themes, but this is done less often in the ballet world, even if Jerome Robbins found a way to do it in “Afternoon of a Faun” and Pina Bausch and others have succeeded with “The Rite of Spring.” Wheeldon’s sophisticated approach to “Swan Lake,” which retains the full Tchaikovsky score, and many of the crucial elements of the widely known 19th century version by Petipa and Ivanov — is full of innovative choreography and fresh characters.

Instead of immediately dropping us into a Grimm Brothers-like world of fairy tale royalty where a prince is mesmerized by a swan/woman, Wheeldon initially draws us into the backstage world of the Paris Opera Ballet as it was so ideally captured in the paintings of the French Impressionist Edgar Degas (think three dancers on a bench, stretching and fixing their hair), and later draws on the raucous entertainers depicted by Degas’ contemporary, Toulouse-Lautrec, who are emblematic of the Parisian high life of the period.

Joffrey Ballet in Christopgher Wheeldon's Swan Lake - April Daly, Yoshihisa Arai, Amanda Assucena (1) - Photo by Cheryl Mann

The company, as it turns out, is preparing for a production of “Swan Lake.” And art becomes intertwined with real life as the dancer performing Prince Siegfried not only falls in love with the dancer performing the gentle Odette (a swan controlled by Von Rothbart, the evil sorcerer, who can transform her into her “opposite,” Odile), but tries to fend off the rich, aging ballet patron who wants to make the dancer his mistress. It’s a story line that Bruno Bettelheim, author of “The Uses of Enchantment,” would have loved, and it very stylishly liberates the ballet for a contemporary audience easily put off by old-fashioned mime and mannerisms.

The one thing that does not change here is the Olympian technical demands of the ballet. And the Joffrey dancers meet every challenge. They are in glorious form.

Victoria Jaiani and Dylan Gutierrez have forged a dreamy stage partnership in recent seasons, and they make a gorgeous pair as Odette/Odile and Prince Siegfried. As Odette, Jaiani pairs her impossibly feathery arms and lightness with a magnificent ability to alter the metabolism of her dancing so that it assumes a breathtaking slow motion quality. Yet as the black swan, Odile, she is all knifelike looks and piercing footwork, whipping off the iconic 32 fouette turns with ease. Gutierrez, tall, handsome, perfectly proportioned and effortlessly airborne, has emerged as a true premier danseur and has such a freedom of movement the stage seems almost too small to contain him. Together, Jaiani and Gutierrez move as one in a way that is pure magic.

But the true test of any “Swan Lake” is the ensemble — from the corps of swans to the “divertisement” dancers. And the Joffrey dancers used their individuality and polish to exceptional effect.

The supremely confident Amanda Assucena, leggy, delicate April Daly, and Yoshihisa Arai (a dancer who truly flies like a bird), easily finessed the Act I pas de trois. Anastacia Holden, Cara Marie Gary, Caitlin Meighan and Assucena nailed the fiendish test of synchronicity that is the Cygnets’ quartet. Christine Rocas’ sexy Russian dance, Holden’s firecracker Spanish dance, the spirited Czardas performed by Lucas Segovia and Joanna Wozniak (who, in Act I, totally channels a Degas figure), added zest to the ballet “gala” scene. And Rory Hohenstein’s Von Rothbart was deftly sinister throughout.

Adrianne Lobel’s ravishing scenic design, enhanced by Natasha Katz’s lighting, Jean-Marc Puissant’s costumes and the subtle use of projections, would make Degas smile. But there is no single element of this production that can be separated from any other. The triumph is in the absolute mastery of the complete canvas.

Leaving the theater all I could think was this: The NFL draft is displacing the Joffrey from its Auditorium home this spring, so it would only be fair if the monumentally overpaid athletes of football paid homage to the woefully underpaid athletes of ballet with a very large check.