Unique Voices Sing In The Joffrey Ballet's New Contemporary Program

February 13, 2015
Chicagoist
Michelle Meywes

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Contemporary dance can be hard to define. Unlike some styles like ballet or even ballroom, contemporary doesn't necessarily have specific steps or instruction. It’s current, wide ranging and pushes the edges of what is accepted and expected while still stemming from the school of ballet. This year, Joffrey Ballet’s contemporary program focuses on “unique voices” of today, featuring three pieces that come from very different corners of this contemporary landscape: one that we would dare to call classic contemporary; one set to the music of The Man In Black; and a bold, raw take on ballet that is so very Ekman.

Some of the most beautiful contemporary pieces are abstract and often influenced by the emotion or turmoil of interpersonal relationships. Stanton Welch’s Maninyas is one of these works. Five couples dressed in matching autumnal shades move in and out of flowing drapery as they are drawn to one another. There are touching moments and festive, jubilant group scenes that seem to display the complicated pull of love in a community.

In The Man In Black, choreographer James Kudelka interprets six songs from music legend Johnny Cash, some literally and some more artfully. Our favorite segment of this medley was a heart wrenching rendition of Trent Reznor’s “Hurt” where three of the four dancers band together in attempt to keep a spiraling friend from destroying himself. The other songs, which included the somber “If You Could Read My Mind” and boot stomping “Damn Your Eyes,” were peppered with mini-narratives and brought in country-western styles like square and line dancing.

After first seeing the unusual and surprising work of Swedish choreographer Alexander Ekman last year in Episode 31, we were curious to see what his first piece using pointe shoes and classical ballet vocabulary would have in store. Tulle literally pulls back the curtain on ballet. Raising the façade and exposing the wings and the inner workings of the stage, we got our first peek at what would be a complete deconstruction of the art form.

Beginning with the steps themselves, the company of dancers talk out positions in an exaggerated rehearsal scene, accompanied by the music of Mikael Karlsson which is heavy on speaking parts and sound effects like the twisting of a pointe shoe on the floor. We move through a history lesson complete with Louis XIV and mock tourists, and into the true feeling of dancing. As trippy as the lens can seem, Ekman manages a spot-on expression of what it actually feels like to be a dancer using their own words. What may appear delicate and graceful to an audience comes with pain as well as great reward behind the scenes. One dancer’s commentary perfectly describes this dichotomy in her love-hate relationship with her pointe shoes: they may make her feet bleed, but they also make her tall and beautiful.

Unique Voices continues at the Auditorium Theater through Sunday, February 22. See the Joffrey Ballet’s website for the full performance schedule. Tickets are $32 to $155.