Review: American Legends (Joffrey Ballet)

February 18, 2013
Chicago Theater Beat
Lauren Whalen

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What makes an American choreographer? Precision. Astuteness. Respect for traditions coupled with the willingness to tweak these traditions, sometimes turn them on their European and Russian heads. The Joffrey Ballet’s American Legends pays tribute to all these qualities and more, with four pieces ranging from sweet and old-school to edgy and contemporary, with a closing stunner featuring the head Rat Packer himself, Frank Sinatra. American Legends is a breathtaking, exhilarating evening, ideal for dance newbies, die-hard balletomanes and everyone in between.

 Herbert Migdoll)The program begins with “Interplay”, Jerome Robbins’ mischievous battle of the sexes. West Side Story fans will recognize Robbins’ signature style that would later become iconic in the Broadway hit. No death or bloodshed here, however: just light as a feather emotion that cynics might call schmaltzy but I call sweet. Santo Loquasto costumes the eight dancers in a rainbow of bright, fun colors and Morton Gould’s quick, bright score casts a nostalgic glow. There were a few hiccups in the steps – very obvious with choreography as precise as Robbins’ – and the eight dancers could employ a bit more energy, but their childlike glee almost makes up for the piece’s shortcomings.

“Sea Shadow”, the evening’s next piece, is a dramatic contrast to interplay. Choreographed by Joffrey co-founder Gerald Arpino in 1962, the pas de deux still feels modern. The steps are classical, the Ravel score haunting, the story tragic (it’s inspired by the Ondine fable, a tragic tale of love between a man and a sea nymph), the effect timeless. Temur Suluashvili is an ideal partner – strong and supportive, with raw expression in every tendu – but the real draw is Joffrey star Victoria Jaiani. As the longing nymph, Jaini employs the scalpel-sharp exactitude of Ann Reinking and the refined elegance of Julie Kent, with an ethereal loveliness that’s all her own. She is always wonderful to watch, and in “Sea Shadow” she is simply otherwordly.

Stanton Welch, creator of the ambitious “Son of Chamber Symphony”, set out to deconstruct ballet by discovering new interpretations of old traditions. The result is an extremely ambitious piece (choreographed for the Joffrey, it premiered at the Jacob’s Pillow festival last August) that could have been an utter mess of odd tones and stripped-down steps, but is instead a challenging, intelligent exploration. John Adams’ score is classical, but very technical and complex, and the choreography organically grows out of that. Welch’s steps, and the dancers who execute them, are sharp in every sense – physically, mentally and musically – but the piece doesn’t go too far into its own head. Travis Halsey’s magnificent costume design suggests traditional costumes and incorporates yet another twist: for example, the women wear tutus made of cotton batting instead of the traditional tulle. “Son of Chamber Symphony” is ballet under a microscope: smart, accurate and very enjoyable.

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All three pieces, though uniquely excellent, are a mere precursor to the program’s final dance, “Nine Sinatra Songs”. Twyla Tharp is a name known even to non-dancers: she is the mastermind behind the groundbreaking Billy Joel musical Movin’ Out. Two decades before, Tharp worked her magic on the music of Frank Sinatra. With Oscar de la Renta costumes and a glittering disco ball, “Nine Sinatra Songs” captures infatuation, drunkenness, gender role play and romance with a backdrop of high heels and legendary crooning. In the Joffrey’s performance, standouts include Lucas Segovia and Joanna Wozniak (in an intoxicated pas de deux to “One for My Baby, and One More for the Road”), Amber Neumann and Derrick Agnoletti (Agnoletti’s trademark showmanship shines through a play on the cha-cha) and Yumelia Garcia and Ogulcan Borova (as a couple passionately feuding and reconciling to the tune of “That’s Life”).

When I was 12, I saw Hubbard Street Dance Chicago perform “Nine Sinatra Songs” as the company toured through downstate Illinois. It was my first exposure to Tharp and though I’d been dancing since I was four years old, I had no idea dance could do that. Twenty years later, I am as much in awe. With their most exciting program in years, the Joffrey demonstrates how American choreographers can inspire amusement, tragedy, intelligence and lust in the span of two hours. It’s enough to make a patriot out of anyone.

  Rating: ★★★½    

American Legends continues through February 24th at Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress Pkwy. (map), with performances Thursdays/Fridays at 7:30pm, Saturdays 2pm and 7:30pm, Sundays 2pm. Tickets are $31-$152, and are available by phone (312.386.8905) or online through their website (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at Joffrey.org. (Running time: 2 hours, includes two intermissions)

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Photos by Herbert Migdoll