Chicago Dance Review: RUSSIAN MASTERS (Joffrey Ballet)

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by Lawrence Bommer on September 19, 2013

in Theater-Chicago


It’s a different kind of “spring fling,” much m0re fitting for September when the season has faded fast. The latest installment in the Joffrey Ballet’s “Masters of Lawrence Bommer’s Stage and Cinema Chicago review of in The Joffrey Ballet’s RUSSIAN MASTERS.Dance” season is a revival of their 1987 and 2009 recreations of the seminal and controversial, century-old Sacre du Printemps–a labor of the future by Diaghilev, Nijinsky and Stravinsky.

But the Russian names don’t stop here: Running through Sunday at the Auditorium Theatre, Russian Masters is a four-work offering of the best of Russian dance and music, classical and modern, endearingly intimate and scandalously social.

Lawrence Bommer’s Stage and Cinema Chicago review of in The Joffrey Ballet’s RUSSIAN MASTERS.Smaller in scale, the first three works showcase bravura movement but pursue no special storyline: Their beauty is its own excuse for being. Living up to its name, Allegro Brillante is George Balanchine’s exuberant compliment to Tchaikovsky’s third piano concerto. Full of sweep and urgency and beautifully conducted by Scott Speck and a superb orchestra, this 1956 work was a vehicle for Chicago icon Maria Tallchief. Here its perpetual motion celebrates four couples as they explore a virtual inventory of classical steps, sometimes in awesome unison but just as powerfully particular in their rapidly evolving partnerships. Seldom has the happening of two becoming one and then two again been so poetically illustrated.

With music by Aram Khachaturian (specifically his Spartacus ballet), Adagio, the first of two works by Yuri Possokhov, is a muscular duet by wife-and-husband Victoria Jaiani and Temur Suluashvili who enact a kind of vertical sex, a virtual architecture of lust in action. I hope there was a stage coveringLawrence Bommer’s Stage and Cinema Chicago review of in The Joffrey Ballet’s RUSSIAN MASTERS. because this pas de deux might have scorched the Auditorium floor. Given these dancers, the edict of “less is more” applied to more than just the costumes.

A sensuous delight, Possokhov’s swirling 2011 Bells, set to seven piano pieces by Sergei Rachmaninoff, undulates and pulsates to assorted dances suggesting everything from the three Graces to the long leaps of first love. If ever you needed proof that dance is movement plus emotion, it’s catalogued here: Five diaphanous couples are caught up in a swirling and acrobatic mélange of classical and folk elements, as supple as its score.

Finally, the pièce de résistance (as it certainly proved in its riot-ridden Parisian debut by the Ballets Russe on May 29, 1913), is the still-shocking Sacre du Printemps, a reenactment of the casual cruelty of a tribal bloodletting. This intentionally primitive, primordial and primeval social ceremony depicts a rite of Lawrence Bommer’s Stage and Cinema Chicago review of in The Joffrey Ballet’s RUSSIAN MASTERS.season in ancient Russia: This offering to the gods inevitably required a human sacrifice in a fertility ritual to ensure a successful sowing, planting and harvesting. (Hunger Games, anyone? Or Apocalypto?)

Recreating its 1987 recreation of Vaslav Nijinsky’s ferocious dance to the death, Millicent Hodson reignites Igor Stravinsky’s propulsive percussive score with its blend of sickly-sweet rhapsodies and carnivorous outbursts. Adding to the accuracy are original designer Nicholas Roerich’s striking folk costumes (which always remind me of Native American garb, whether intended or not).

However upsetting Sacre proved for its long-dead opening night audience, the violence depicted is entirely stylized, nothing like the systematic slaughter they’d see next year in the trenches of France in the first “Great War.” It’s hard to believe how a Lawrence Bommer’s Stage and Cinema Chicago review of in The Joffrey Ballet’s RUSSIAN MASTERS.story so stark could be set to any other sounds than Stravinsky’s or why this seemed so toxically unusual: Any “modern” music that the audience would prefer would be instantly anachronistic. A horrid blast from the past requires its own inimitable score and setting.

As it is, the animistic ancestors in bearskins, robotically rambunctious youths, and literally entranced young maidens from whom the Chosen One (Joanna Wozniak) is selected by a stumble—they deserve each other in this fully consistent work of imagined history. It’s still terrifying to see Wozniak, like the doomed heroine of The Red Shoes, flail, twirl, jump and soar into inevitable oblivion. I hope the harvest was worth it.

This one was.

photos by Cheryl Mann and Roger Mastroianni

Russian Masters
Joffrey Ballet at Auditorium Theatre
scheduled to end on September 22, 2013
for tickets, call (800) 982-2787 or visit

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