Chicago Dance Review: CONTEMPORARY CHOREOGRAPHERS (Joffrey Ballet at the Auditorium)

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by Lawrence Bommer on February 13, 2014

in Theater-Chicago


Playing (in every sense of the word) through Feb. 23, Joffrey Ballet’s three-part showcase of Contemporary Choreographers delivers some (happily) bloodless cutting-edge miracles of movement. Mostly more impressive to the eyes than comprehensible to the brain, this very mixed rep won’t curl up to you before a warm fire. But our troupe’s winter trifecta takes the temperature and topography of three hot dance creators—Christopher Wheeldon, Alexander Ekman and Brock Clawson—and in a technical triumph times ten, it fills the Auditorium stage as never before.

How is that possible, you ask? In the middle of the final piece, a wild breakout romp entitled Episode 31, the famous side or “reducing” panels of the Auditorium Theatre, elaborate filigreed creations by Louis Sullivan naming famous composers, actually lift up to expose something never seen before—the entire width of the famous theater’s vast and sprawling stage. To generations of theatergoers since 1889, those proscenium frames seemed eternal, immutable, and unliftable. Not so anymore. For Chicago audiences who’ve been coming to the refurbished Auditorium since 1967, the reaction was nothing short of awestruck amazement.

Shaped into contagious excitement by Swedish choreographer Alexander Ekman, Episode 31 (I have no idea what happened to the first 30 episodes) begins with a somewhat self-serving video introduction testifying to the dedication and discipline of the dancers—which should be self-evident from the results. We see the peripatetic dancers forming their own “flash mob” as they explode from their Loop headquarters to cavort all over downtown Chicago to the astonishment of innocent bystanders. They also perform inspired aerobics in several astonished elevated trains. (Why is my car always so dull?)

Ekman’s action installation continues in real time with the company, now on the vastly expanded Auditorium stage, dressed like middle-school kids engaging in school pranks. Extending or bunching up huge dance mats, their pell-mell action is fragmented by a busily descending curtain and framed by a lounge lamp on one side. With its synchronized screaming, jerking and chanting, it’s as eclectic as electric, a tribute to youthful energy barely controlled as it’s channeled into what used to be called a “happening.”


Definitely a middle work (it’s neither arousing nor conclusive), Joffrey artistic director Christopher Wheeldon’s Continuum from 2002 is curiously named, since these variations–solos, duets and ensemble pieces—defy any particular continuity. In any case this work is very keyed int0 its score of whimsical and enigmatic piano pieces by Gyorgy Ligeti. (You know the music came first but, watching this, it’s possible to imagine Ligeti finding his notes from the dancers’improvised shape shifting.)


The achingly abstract result is a somewhat disjointed, sharp-edged set of experiments in making movement itself. They’re jolting to playful, with ritualistic windmill movements by flailing arms, shadows cast on the back wall, and a line of interlocked men resembling Matisse’s iconic snake dance. The form isn’t fluid but the six couples seemed to thrive on its blend of neoclassical gestures and abstruse activities. They perform it with clean conviction, a Joffrey forte that never fails.


Finally (though it’s the opening number), there’s the very fascinating Crossing Ashland, created by Brock Clawson in 2012 for the Milwaukee Ballet. It begins as a parade of pedestrians, literal “walk-on” roles that open up upstage to a much fleshier contingent of unclothed dancers performing, it seems, the secret fantasies of the passersby.

The ensemble of Alexander Ekman's EPISODE 31 with The Joffrey Ballet

We see these physically perfect specimens engaging in diverting entanglements: crawling and scooping each other up; making hoops with their open arms; and erecting a kind of free-form human architecture that’s as impulsive and impressionistic as the street activity at the back of the stage. Using a diverse musical backdrop by John Adams, Michele McLaughlin, M83, Martin Tillman and Jeremy Limb, this dynamic panoply could not be more actual or less virtual.

The Joffrey Ballet ensemble in Alexander Ekman's EPISODE 31.

It makes for a charged, varied, perhaps even representative evening of modern dance. But years from now I’ll most recall the incredible opening up of the Auditorium stage, something that for Chicagoans is equivalent to the Statue of Liberty shedding her copper sheath or the Sphinx at Giza after its newly exposed crouching superstructure was finally dug out of the sand. Revelations indeed. What could be more contemporary than turning back the clock on a Victorian landmark?

Derrick Agnoletti and Aaron Rogers (both far left) in Alexander Ekman's EPISODE 31 at The Joffrey Ballet.

photos by Cheryl Mann
poster photo of Crossing Ashland with Ricardo Santos & Lucas Segovia by Christopher Duggan

Contemporary Choreographers
Christopher Wheeldon / Continuum
Brock Clawson / Crossing Ashland
Alexander Ekman / Episode 31
Joffrey Ballet
Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University, 50 E. Congress Parkway
ends on February 23, 2014
for tickets, call 312.386.8905 or visit Joffrey

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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