Joffrey program deftly traces evolution of ‘modern ballet’

February 17, 2013
Chicago Sun Times
Hedy Weiss


The Joffrey Ballet’s hugely engaging “American Legends” program, at the Auditorium Theatre through Feb. 24, serves as a multifaceted exploration of this question: What do we mean when we talk about “modern ballet”?

It explores the question with performances of four works created over the course of nearly seven decades by choreographers Jerome Robbins, Gerald Arpino, Twyla Tharp and Stanton Welch. And the result is a fascinating roadmap — one that never entirely discards 19th-century ballet traditions (in terms of technique, partnering, patterns), yet demonstrates the way artists have synthesized many new influences and stretched the art form.

In “Interplay” (from 1945), in which the four men are dressed in T-shirts and black tights and the four women wear short, brightly colored dresses, Robbins makes full use of Morton Gould’s jazzy score. With its youthful, sassy attitudes, playful flirtatiousness and high-speed, streetwise competitive moves, the piece easily suggests a template for Robbins’ later work on “West Side Story.” The exhilarating John Mark Giragosian is the leader of the pack, with Christine Rocas, Amber Neumann, eye-catching newcomer Cara Marie Gary and Kara Zimmerman giving the formidable men (Ricard Santos, Lucas Segovia and Alberto Velasquez) a good run for their money.

Joffrey co-founder Gerald Arpino continually stretched the ballet vocabulary by infusing it with modern dance-style floor work, acrobatic positions and overt eroticism. Yet “Sea Shadow” (1962), his mesmerizing duet to the music of Ravel, also harks back to Nijinsky’s 1912 “Afternoon of a Faun” and Robbins’ 1953 version of that work as it traces the erotic encounter between a man and a sea nymph. The almost illegally beautiful Victoria Jaiani and Temur Suluashvili (married in real life) were the breathtaking couple here. You could hear a pin drop as they held the audience in rapt attention.

Choreographed by Twyla Tharp (whose “Deuce Coupe,” set to Beach Boys songs, gave the company its first pop vibe back in 1973), “Nine Sinatra Songs” (1982) — the only piece danced to recorded music on a program otherwise accompanied by the splendid Chicago Philharmonic under Scott Speck — is as much ballroom-meets-Broadway as it is ballet. But the Joffrey dancers (in gorgeous costumes by Oscar de la Renta) have a rip-roaring good time with its acrobatic demands and acting challenges. Tiny Christine Rocas and partner Suluashvili were terrific in “One for My Baby.” Joanna Wozniak and Rory Hohenstein were full of heat and chemistry in “All the Way.” Mahalia Ward and Graham Maverick were a comic treat in “Something Stupid.” Jaiani and Lucas Segovia gave as good as they got in the Apache-style “That’s Life.” And there was much more to delight.

Despite its quirky title, “Son of Chamber Symphony” — choreographed for the company last year by Stanton Welch, the Australian-bred artistic director of the Houston Ballet — is every bit as complex and agitated as it score by contemporary American composer John Adams. There is a kind of edgy, mechanistic, space-age quality about Welch’s fiendishly difficult neo-classical work that draws on elements of the ballet classics in its structure and partnering. The powerhouse Amber Neumann (partnered by Adam Adamczyk) was a standout, along with Jaiani (with Fabrice Calmels), and April Daly (with Suluashvili). Costume designer Travis Halsey’s unique tutus — think Saturn’s rings, satellite dishes, calla lilies — gave the work, which needs several more viewings to fully appreciate, a decidedly otherworldly feel.