Joffrey Ballet's "Winter Fire"

February 17, 2012
REVIEW by See Chicago Dance
Laura Molzahn

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If there's a medal for sheer guts, the Joffrey dancers should all get one. They must have run the equivalent of several marathons on opening night of "Winter Fire." And they did it with amazing physical and emotional inflection.

What's hottest about "Winter Fire" is its blazing ambition. Running through Sunday, February 26, at the Auditorium, the program comprises three contemporary ballet classics --- if "classic" can be applied to a four-year-old dance like Wayne McGregor's. (I think it can.) Scoring the U.S. premiere of his 2008 "Infra" was a big coup. And though the Joffrey has previously performed excerpts from William Forsythe's 1987 "In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated," set on ballet companies worldwide, it's never before danced the entire mind-blowing work. Christopher Wheeldon's 2005 "After the Rain" completes the program.

Anyone who still believes that abstract ballets lack heart because they lack story should definitely see "Winter Fire." And anyone who already loves contemporary dance should see it because, here in the heartland, we don't get sufficient opportunities to catch the classics.

Thanks to Thom Willems's electronic score, Forsythe's "In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated" begins with a literal bang --- and a spotlight on two ballerinas facing off, displaying their turnout and dagger-like pointe-shod feet. Then the race is on; the piece becomes a diabolical dance engine powered by the all-mighty foot. Raising and lowering this crucial appendage creates the most exhilarating shifts in a work that's filled with them. Men and women alike magically rise and fall from one strata of the stage space to another, in swift moves precisely timed to the percussive music.

There's definitely an 80s edge of competition and even violence to "In the Middle," which is like a machine relentlessly assembling and disassembling itself over and over. It seems we're dropped into the process in medias res, and we wonder when and how it will end, for us and for the dancers, as their limbs continually explode out from their cores.

That innate violence is mitigated, however, by the piece's finesse and detail. The care that's gone into the choreography and the performance (thanks to former Forsythe dancer Glen Tuggle) creates a cogent sympathy with the dancers and the dance's underlying engine: human craft and effort.

That's a tough act to follow. Wheeldon's "After the Rain," with its focus on everyday humanity, did seem slight by comparison. Opening with a cool, elegant ensemble section for three couples that mourns the passing of time, it closes with a duet by one of the couples. On opening night, clad in a warm, peachy glow and not much else, Victoria Jaiani and Fabrice Calmels embodied the height of romance in what is apparently a flashback to the lost, idyllic relationship.

McGregor's 30-minute "Infra" seemed the biggest struggle of the evening for the dancers, perhaps because it came at the end of a strenuous program and because it was the newest, least practiced piece. Also the 12 dancers seemed, on average, younger and less experienced (kudos, though, to Rory Hohenstein and Jaiani, two expert performers who demonstrated amazing energy and control in all three pieces). Then there's the usual problem of setting a work created for specific dancers -- in this case, the Royal Ballet -- on other performers of differing abilities and body types. That can be a particular challenge with duets, especially those that entwine the dancers as artfully as these do. Duets also dominate the piece.

More time will help the performance. And "Infra" is worth the effort. Created in response to the London bombings of 2005, which killed 52 innocent commuters and injured hundreds of others, it's bolstered by McGregor's trademark technology --- here, Julian Opie's pared but nuanced designs, displayed on a giant LED screen over the dancers' heads, showing lines of people walking purposefully, presumably going to work. Max Richter's score combines feeling and ghostly diffidence.

Insane pliability, control, and speed are the hallmarks of McGregor's choreography. The legs drive into the floor or the air while the torso ripples, the shoulders ripple, heads and hands get tic-cy. The women are spun like pinwheels and cradled like babies. Though little of the movement is gestural, some is hugely so, which gives it a hefty wallop. Despite --- or because of --- the moves' frequent artificiality, they convey intense communication by and between the dancers. "Infra" really does make you feel you've delved beneath the surface of anonymous commuters, people who work and live and die, not anonymously, but with passionate individuality.

"Winter Fire" exposed a sinewy, snaky side of the Joffrey I'd never quite seen before. In more traditional ballet roles, the women can't be this strong, and the men this serpentine. Ricardo Santos was especially sinuous in "In the Middle," while Christine Rocas was especially steely there and in "Infra." But all the dancers deserve props for tackling, and largely conquering, these works. I know it's their job. I'm still grateful.