Joffrey Ballet's "American Legends"

February 14, 2013
Time Out Chicago
Matthew de la Pena

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You can’t go wrong closing with Sinatra. There’s a case to be made, however, for Stanton Welch. Joffrey’s “American Legends,” a four-piece program, now running through Feb 24 at the Auditorium Theatre, concludes with Twyla Tharp’s popular Nine Sinatra Songs, but Welch’s Son of Chamber Symphony is the real treat of the evening.

Leave it to an Australian to crash an American party. In a bill that identifies with the homegrown virtuosos of contemporary ballet, Welch’s surprise is largely a matter of modernity. We’re seeing, after all, Jerome Robbins’s youthful Interplay (a piece that debuted in 1944), Joffrey cofounder Gerald Arpino’s sensual, though at times sappy duet, Sea Shadow (which premiered in 1962), and Tharp’s invariably trendy Nine Sinatra Songs (a product of the early 80s). There’s no arguing with the past, but Welch provides a nice slice of 21st-century variety. In a piece commissioned by the Joffrey and which had its debut at the Jacob’s Pillow dance festival, Son of Chamber Symphony embellishes classic ballet techniques, built on contemporary degrees of quickness and shape-shifting, then distinguishes itself by using a bombastic musical score. Last night, Chicago got to see it for the first time.

That added dash of musical zest is what makes Son of Chamber, and Welch, different. A score that can feel dissonant has every chance of bringing disaster, yet it does the opposite: A strange demi-pointe, a contracted dip, the pitter-patter of pointe shoes on flat; it all works. At one point, a dancer faces the wing and does a series of pirouettes. Strange? Not so. In three sections, the second a marvelous duet between Victoria Jaiani and Fabrice Calmels, the concept stays true to Welch’s second inspiration apart from the music, which he notes is based on the inner workings of a clock. How fitting: A gizmo of parts working in tandem to produce a continuum. Sounds a lot like the exceptional dancers of the Joffrey, the sum of their parts greater than any individual. Here, they do justice to the night's one revelation in Son of Chamber.

There's lots to praise of the three so-called “American legends,” each of them carrying tremendous distinction in the history of American dance. By the night's end, though, the Australian-born Welch is the one you’ll want to talk about first.

"American Legends" continues through February 24 at the Auditorium Theatre.