Live Review: Joffrey Ballet's All Stars

October 14, 2010
REVIEW by Time Out Chicago
Zachary Whittenburg


The Joffrey Ballet heads into its 2010–11 programs riding a wave of momentum from last season’s strong finish, a Groupon coup and a consistent, widespread marketing push. Star dancer Victoria Jaiani is on the cover of October’s Dance Magazine, the subject of a fawning 1,500-word profile by Hedy Weiss of the Sun-Times. “All Stars,” at the Auditorium Theatre through October 24, was a TOC Dance Fall Preview pick, not only because it’s a strong triple bill of top shelf one-acts with an Italian cherry on top, but because it’s a primer on themes the company is set to explore in greater detail over the next two years. American ballet’s golden boy (though he’s been facing some stiff competition lately from Benjamin Millepied, a.k.a. Mr. Natalie Portman), choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, was in the house on opening night.

The company’s stars are far from crossed, but do they align?

In a word, yes. In two? Pretty much.

Jaiani, though certainly highlighted on recent programs and consistently first cast, has never been so aggressively pushed to the foreground. (The Joffrey is atypical among ballet companies its size in that it doesn’t rank its dancers by tier.) The Tbilisi native, the troupe’s de facto étoile, is assured and accomplished beyond her 25 years and most of her 39 colleagues, but she still has plenty of room (and time) to grow.

During Wheeldon’s After the Rain, at least, she owns the hell out of her current preeminence. The 2005 piece’s second movement, a duet to Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel, has become something of a party piece over the past few years. (Local balletomanes may remember New York City Ballet’s Wendy Whelan and Sébastien Marcovici performed it at the 2009 Chicago Dancing Festival.) Sure enough, Jaiani and Fabrice Calmels made the ballet’s first movement, also to Pärt, seem mere prologue, though really: It’s no more than that anyhow. Jaiani asks a lot of her partners, and Calmels rose to the challenge, never stronger, more attentive or more tender than he was in Rain. As a matter of fact, it was a performance that changed my perception of him entirely. They were stunning, as were the Chicago Sinfonietta and solo violinists Carol Lahti and Paul Zafer.

Jerome Robbins’s The Concert (or, The Perils of Everybody) was equally well-executed. The 1956 comedy, designed by gothtastic illustrator and Chicago native Edward Gorey, and set to Chopin pieces for piano and occasionally orchestra, is served well by Jean-Pierre Frohlich’s meticulous staging. There are approximately 12,472 jokes during the piece’s 30 minutes. Not a single one was snuffed out, fumbled or mismanaged; many audience members, especially the woman two rows behind me, were snorting and guffawing. As monstrous a person as Robbins was by most accounts, The Concert is an extraordinary work of dance-theater, razor-sharp and perfectly conceived, and the Joffrey dancers deserve praise for making its timeless sight gags sing. The ballet’s female sextet, a brilliantly paced inventory of possible missteps, had me in stitches and the simple “umbrella” section, which nods to Magritte, swiftly choked me up. Kudos are due to Matthew Adamczyk, John Mark Giragosian and onstage pianist Paul James Lewis, revealed to be fine actors with an optimal balance of subtlety and clarity. If anyone was slightly tone deaf during the closer, it was Jaiani in the “Ballerina” role. Maybe she should’ve been given a chance to relax instead.

The two remaining works, first and second on the program, were the Balanchine offerings, Stravinsky Violin Concerto (1972) and Tarantella (1964). Here is where the Joffrey encountered the most trouble. Simply put, the Joffrey dancers aren’t facile at speed: Passages in both pieces are murderously fast and, to my eye, only Derrick Agnoletti, Giragosian, Abigail Simon and Allison Walsh could hope to do any more than just keep up.

Agnoletti brought his “A game” to Tarantella, opposite Yumelia Garcia, the only Joffreyite who can best him in the department of exuberant facial expressions. This standalone duet, stile Napoletano, is, like the second half of Rain, frequently a soloists’ showcase. (It was recently danced at the White House.) Garcia, though winningly zippy, bent knees and cut corners to stay on schedule, and she’s not the turner that role demands. The two had good chemistry, anyway, important considering Tarantella falls in the category of dances wherein attitude is more important than exactitude.

Which is not where Violin Concerto lands; in August, I called it “the dance equivalent of a bar exam.” This staging—credited to Bart Cook and Maria Calegari, although artistic director Ashley Wheater, in his curtain speech, mentioned Elyse Borne instead of Calegari—puts all the elements in place, clean in architecture and unison. But I left with the sense that there wasn’t an opportunity for whoever it was to do any more than teach the steps. (The Sinfonietta was obviously challenged by the score as well, sounding ragged, shrill and stressed.) The technical benchmarks required to perform this piece are incredibly high for everyone but, if they’re met, the piece offers innumerable openings to poetry and wit. The principal men, Miguel Angel Blanco and Temur Suluashvili, looked terrified, and April Daly was dainty and apologetic in a role that asks for sweep touched by violence. (Does anyone research their assignments anymore?)

The Joffrey is closer than it’s ever been, since I’ve been watching, to play in ivory sandboxes like Violin Concerto, but those stars still have yet to come out.

“All Stars” resumes Friday 15 and continues through October 24 at the Auditorium Theatre.

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