Review: Human Landscapes (Joffrey Ballet Chicago)

October 25, 2012
Chicago Theatre Beat
Lauren Whalen


It’s been a long summer without the Joffrey Ballet. Thankfully, one of Chicago’s premier dance companies is back in full force, reminding us just why ballet is a vital and relevant art form. At what other show can an audience member contemplate the sea, ponder the complexities of a career in dance, and ruminate on one’s mortality – all in the span of two hours? With three diverse pieces that span 80 years, the Joffrey’s fall program delights, amazes and frightens in equal measure. Human Landscapes explores a wide range of technique, emotion and storytelling: ballet’s endless capability, rife with inspiration.

 Herbert Migdoll)“Forgotten Land”, the evening’s opening piece, was created in 1981 for the Stuttgart Ballet by groundbreaking Czech choreographer Jirí Kylián to the music of English composer Benjamin Britten. John Macfarlane’s backdrop was inspired by an Edvard Munch painting of women on a beach, staring out at the sea and the twelve dancers begin accordingly, their backs to the audience as they contemplate the dramatic sea. Macfarlane’s costume design is a seamless blend of red, black, pink and beige, an unusual complement to the backdrop’s green and black motif. Kylián’s choreography is heavy on stretches, backbends and pas de deux. What’s most wonderful about an already strong ballet is its showcase of some of Joffrey’s strongest dancers. Victoria Jaiani and Miguel Angel Blanco have long been company stars, and their expressive duet is nothing short of breathtaking, but “Forgotten Land” spotlights several of Joffrey’s rising talents: Lucas Segovia is lovely to behold as he ably partners Joanna Wozniak – the two bend and stretch as if they are one fluid being. And Rory Hohenstein’s expressive flexibility shines in his pas de deux with Christine Rocas. Jaiani, Rocas and April Daly move together and apart in a wonderful, wistful closing tableau.

I was in the audience the night “Pretty BALLET” had its 2010 world premiere at the Joffrey, and I enjoyed it even more this time around. Jaiani once again displays her signature delicate intensity – reminiscent of American Ballet Theatre’s Julie Kent – in a four-movement exploration of what it means to be a dancer. James Kudelka’s masterpiece is less ballet and more abstract art: the steps are not only stunning but also symbolic. With the exception of a stirring pas de deux, in which Blanco manipulates Jaiani like a beautiful and terrifying life-sized doll, the sexes are mostly separated. Even the title is evocative of how ballet looks on the surface (“pretty”) and its dominating presence in the life of anyone who chooses to pursue it full-time (“BALLET”). Denis Lavoie’s costumes are an elegant mix of elaborate (long white tulle skirts on the women, and Jaiani’s striking red pointe shoes) and utilitarian (gray long john-like garments for the men): also symbolic of ballet’s unique mixture of beautiful surfaces and strict, tight positions. The Chicago Philharmonic’s strong sound completes the piece, a fitting first outing for the Joffrey’s new official orchestra. Two years later, “Pretty BALLET” is no less exciting and thought-provoking.

“The Green Table” is the opposite of new – it was created in 1932 – but retains its disturbing impact in 2012. The late German choreographer Kurt Jooss required that this ballet always be the closing piece of any program in which it appeared, so the audience would leave contemplating life and death. Fabrice Calmels, tall and imposing even in his gentlest roles, cuts a frightening figure here as Death. Face made up in black, white and gray, Death lurks in the presence of a group of soldiers and a cadre of women. Death is brutal and gentle in equal measure, but always inevitable – when he is nearby, someone’s not long for this world. Jooss’ choreography is woefully dated: in 1932, ballet dancers were capable of much less, and it shows in the steps. However, Hein Heckroth’s costumes and  ’s masks add a horrific layer, and the cast’s utter dedication – especially Calmels, Anastacia Holden as an innocent young woman and Temur Suluashvili as a snakelike Profiteer – make “The Green Table” a truly watchable dance of death.

“Mavericks of American Dance” is the Joffrey’s 2012-13 season theme, and the possibilities are exciting. With three phenomenal pieces, the company’s year is off to a promising start. From the yearning “Forgotten Land” to the abstract “Pretty BALLET” to the disturbing “The Green Table”, Human Landscapes thrills – and sets the tone for an incredible season.

   Rating: ★★★½       

Human Landscapes continues through October 28th at the Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress Pkwy. (map), with performances Wednesday through Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $31-$152, and are available by phone (312.386.8905) or online through their websiteMore information at time: 2 hours, includes two intermissions)

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