Words about Dance
After premiering Christopher Wheeldon’s The Nutcracker with much spectacle in December, Joffrey rides this momentum in their first of 2017 by delivering a spectacularly performed program this month. Named Game Changers, the program is curated by Joffrey Artistic Director Ashley Wheater and features works by, apparently, Wheater’s idea of “ballet game changers”. While I wouldn’t go as far as to say that the three men on the bill are total game changers, and the programming of this bill is glaringly white, and male, the works in this case are indeed worth the hype.
Joffrey’s love affair with Christopher Wheeldon is proving to be strong and enduring. Performing his work Fool’s Paradise in September 2015 and presenting his larger-than-life Nutcracker this year, at first I wondered if Chicago audiences had been over-saturated with “Wheeldon Wonder”. Contrarily though, having missed the Joffrey premiere of Fool’s Paradise the first time around, I have to admit that I was the fool. Fool’s Paradise is, indeed, paradise. With taupey, flesh-toned leotards, and metallic gold flower petals falling from the ceiling, the warm light lends itself like a snow globe or a peep through a key-hole into small and magical world that we feel to be seeing from the outside. A clear nod, whether intentional or not, to Wheeldon’s background at the New York City Ballet, high waist satin hip-alignment belts and plain leotards scream Balanchine, and a repeating motif of three dancers, connecting by ever-flowing arm and hand arrangements conjure images of his Apollo. Joby Talbot’s music score, is haunting, dramatic, and sometimes melancholy, but even despite the rather dark overtones of the piece, it still feels somehow like a warm embrace. The Joffrey dancers dance this work with incredible comfort, clearly having performed and perfected it before. When dancer Amanda Assucena is assisted in a slide on her rear, to somehow, magically, perch atop her pointe shoe and dump into a long and leggy penche, my jaw is on the ground. If I’m being honest, Wheeldon’s Nuctracker didn’t dazzle for me this year as it felt rushed, uncomfortable, and unsettled on the company, but if Fool’s Paradise is any indication of how this company can look performing Wheeldon’s work, then I am hopeful for Nutcracker‘s future.
Wayne McGregor’s INFRA is next. Performed by The Joffrey in February 2012, and premiered by The Royal Ballet first (in 2008), INFRA is a large departure from Paradise. INFRA is one big heartache for me: a giant mirror held up to the mundane, cold, and sometimes unbearably tragic nature of life, especially in an urban landscape. An almost uncomfortably bright LED screen hangs high above the tallest dancer and blares images of pixelated men and women with briefcases, walking to and from the stage. As these computerized pixelizations continue their commute where ever they’re going, a complicated and at times painful story unfolds below, but also keeps to its nature as a story of commuters in the unknowingly doomed London Tube. INFRA as with Paradise, is performed unbelievably by the dancers of the company. So often disguised by pink tights, leotards, and tutus, it is easy to forget that The Joffrey can rock a bare foot and a deep lunge with the best of them. Moments of absurd technical prowess and impressing balance and length are abundant, but what is most striking about this piece are the small gestures, the heartfelt moments, and the utter sadness that it evokes in the loneliest parts of the audiences’ hearts.
Finally, Justin Peck, New York City Ballet’s (and lately, it seems, the entire ballet world’s) Golden Child brings his 2012 Year of the Rabbit. A new work to the Joffrey, Rabbit has all the hallmarks of Peck’s emerging choreographic style: vivid colors, rapid, sometimes chaotic movement, and strong and precise corps de ballet formations. Though I’ve only been lucky enough to see Peck’s work performed live this, and one other time (on Miami City Ballet, in 2016), YouTube, and other sources tell me that Peck, at the tender age of 29 has already established a solid and recognizable aesthetic. His work, of all three “game changing” works on this program to me, most closely resembles his predecessors, thus making it the least “game changing” of the three, in terms of choreographic ingenuity. Evoking unmistakably Balanchinian (did I just make up a word?) images in Rabbit, coy interactions between dancers, almost impossibly quick movements of the feet, and at one point, an almost exact replica of the triangular formation in the upper right corner of the stage from Balanchine’s Serenade, Peck clearly establishes where he comes from. Of the three works, Peck’s had to work the hardest for my personal stamp of approval, but in the end won out. Peppy and positive, Peck’s explosive iteration of the Chinese Zodiac carried audiences back out into the Chicago cold with smiles on their faces.
The three works on this winter program are performed absolutely beautifully by the Joffrey, finally reminding me of what they’re truly capable of. After a straight-laced and more classical Cinderella back in May, and Romeo and Juliet in October, a wobbly, overwhelmed Nutcracker, Game Changers finally breathed some contemporary life and re-energized hopes back into my excitement about this extraordinary company. While none of these works are particularly game changing on their own, they are indeed a very strong representation of where contemporary ballet can keep moving in the future.
All photos are from the Wednesday, February 15th performance of Game Changers, by Cheryl Mann.
Game Changers runs February 15th to the 26th.