Joffrey thrills in return to Berkeley

January 27, 2013
SFGate
Allan Ulrich

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Absent from Bay Area stages for far too long, a rejuvenated Joffrey Ballet returned triumphantly Saturday evening to Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall, leaving no doubt that a Chicago home and a new artistic director, Ashley Wheater, have restored the 57-year-old company to the highest echelon of the American ballet hierarchy.
 
How different this was from the Joffrey's disappointing Cal Performances visit in 2007. The dancers' vaunted gusto remains, but Saturday, even in the evening's busy and attenuated opener, Edwaard Liang's "Age of Innocence," a newly acquired elegance of attack among the performers kept one fixed on the matter at hand.
 
Much better soon arrived after intermission. This sixth of 22 Joffrey tour dates this season neatly balances the historic with the best of an extraordinary present.
 
Kurt Jooss' imperishable 1932 antiwar classic, "The Green Table," first revived by this company in 1967, cast its insidious spell on a new generation. This singular work in eight scenes derives from an expressionist aesthetic, yet it makes its effect through the wry tone enforced by Hein Heckroth's costumes and the brilliantly sardonic, two-piano score by Fritz Cohen (performed live by Mungunchimeg Burian and Paul James Lewis).
 
The ballet's stunning opening and closing - the cavorting of the masked plutocrats who launch wars dancing around a baize platform - found the Joffrey at its characteristic best.
 
In between, Death marches in place and stalks everyone, soldier and innocent. This figure, his costume a cross between skeleton and centurion, strikes some and cradles others in his embrace. Dylan Gutierrez is the latest in a long line of Joffrey performers to breathe deadly life into this implacable figure.
 
Temur Suluashvili's sinuous profiteer in bowler hat and spats is a worthy successor in the part to the great Gary Chryst. April Daly was the poignant old mother. "The Green Table" remains as potent as most of us remember it.
 
Still, the Joffrey's dedication to the present yielded a quiet masterwork - Christopher Wheeldon's "After the Rain," three spare, seemingly purified pas de deux, set exquisitely to Arvo Pärt's minimalist's scores. San Francisco Ballet dances the climactic section, but in place here, as performed by the infinitely flexible Victoria Jaiani (what a back bend!) and the ardent Fabrice Calmels, it seems even more haunting.
 
The other couples in this impeccably staged (by Jason Fowler) revival included Valerie Robin and Matthew Adamczyk and Daly and Rory Hohenstein. The latter, remembered from his San Francisco days, looked nothing less than terrific here. Amazing what a change of venue can do.