Chicago Dance Review: SWAN LAKE (The Joffrey Ballet)

Swan Lake at The Joffrey Ballet - POSTER

by Lawrence Bommer on October 16, 2014

in Theater-Chicago

A DREAM WITHIN A DANCE

Borrowed from the Pennsylvania Ballet, Joffrey Ballet’s latest offering (running through Oct. 26 at the Auditorium Theatre) is not your usual Swan Lake. Not to be compared with the Trocks’ respectful travesty, the original 1877 production by the Bolshoi, or the psychodrama of the film Black Swan, Christopher Wheeldon’s invigorating 2003 adaption of Tchaikovsky’s gem turns the tale of a cursed spirit’s renunciation into a “life-imitates-art” fantasy/dream.

April Daly, Yoshihisa Arai, Amanda Assucena and the Joffrey Ballet in Christopher Wheeldon's SWAN LAKE - Photo by Cheryl Mann.

The moving magic takes place in set designer Adrian Lobel’s vast rehearsal room at the Paris Opera in the early 1880s. A towering smudged mirror functions both as reflection and, as in Phantom of the Opera, a portal to a delirious alternative world. The ever young 1895 choreography by Lev Ivanov and Marius Petipa is perfectly preserved—but it’s harnessed to a much more redemptive storyline than Swan Lake has ever seen.

Victoria Jaiani and the Joffrey Ballet in Christopher Wheeldon's SWAN LAKE - Photo by Cheryl Mann

As the rehearsal breaks up (its images clearly conjured from Degas paintings and Toulouse-Lautrec caricatures), the vast French doors are thrown open: Victoria Jaiani’s neurasthenic, enchanted Odette enters, the Queen of the Swans and an apparition spawned in the brain and heart of the company’s lead dancer (sensuous Dylan Gutierrez). On the spot the dazed dancer becomes 21-year-old Prince Siegfried, the passionate pursuer of a phantom.

Dylan Gutierrez, Victoria Jaiani, and Rory Hohenstein (Joffrey Ballet) in Christopher Wheeldon's SWAN LAKE - Photo by Cheryl Mann.

For the next two and a half hours the ballet hews closely to the fevered original: The hunting prince is haunted by and taken to a dark realm where cygnets cavort in a perfect quartet and swans swirl across the stage. It’s a nightmare landscape controlled by an apparent patron (a.k.a. abonné) of the ensemble—the salacious and unclean intentions of these wealthy male patrons of poor young ballerinas are here fleshed out into a dire sorcerer. This stern soul turns out to be villainous magician Von Rothbart (the usually immense Fabrice Calmels shrinking for the occasion). It’s intriguing how in this version Von Rothbart so closely suggests the benign spellbinder Dr. Drosselmeier in The Nutcracker.

Elizabeth Hansen, Alexis Polito, and Cara Marie Gary of The Joffrey Ballet in Christopher Wheeldon's SWAN LAKE - Photo by Cheryl Mann.

In the third act, high chandeliers preside over a cabaret-style dinner party to celebrate the opening of the ballet Swan Lake. It features the requisite series of novelty dances–the reliable clockwork pas de quatre, Russian and Spanish dances, a czardas, even an astonishing can-can performed by local grisettes. It’s here, of course, where Siegfried, to whom all swans look alike, falls for Odette’s evil twin Odile (the elegant Jaiani, now channeling Natalie Portman) and breaks faith with his bird lady.

Victoria Jaiani, Dylan Gutierrez and the Joffrey Ballet in Christopher Wheeldon's SWAN LAKE - Photo by Cheryl Mann.

In the final scene, the rehearsal room opens up to a vast lake, the backdrop for a fatal showdown between a desperate Von Rothbart, his rebellious flock, a forgiving Odette, and a Prince who, as he reverts to the Principal Dancer, discovers that not all was lost after all.

Joanna Wozniak, Lucas Segovia, and the Joffrey Ballet in Christopher Wheeldon's SWAN LAKE - Photo by Cheryl Mann.

As a ballet-within-a-ballet, Wheeldon’s reinvention delivers a strangely satisfying payoff. He’s rooted a familiar masterpiece in the actuality of its own formation. At some point in the rehearsal process what before seemed arduous technique becomes its own raison d’etre. Caught in their own hard-won fantasy of forms, the dancers can perform on auto pilot—and that assumes the dimensions of a dream.

Anastacia Holden, Elivelton das Gracas, Aaron Smyth, and the Joffrey Ballet in Christopher Wheeldon's SWAN LAKE - Photo by Cheryl Mann.

Of course, Wheeldon’s creation must work equally well as formal art, and Jason Fowler stages with crisp precision, with the classic score abundantly supported by the excellent Chicago Philharmonic Orchestra. Jean-Marc Puissant’s gorgeous costumes, mysteriously lit by Natasha Katz (as recreated by Christine Binder), deliver all the make-believe we need.

Victoria Jaiani, Dylan Gutierrez, and the Joffrey Ballet in Christopher Wheeldon's SWAN LAKE - Photo by Cheryl Mann.

Finally and fully, there’s the dancing, the ultimate transformations in this fairy tale. Literally jumping for joy, Jaiani’s polished performance waxes hot and wanes cold, sometimes simultaneously. Her turns and twirls come so quickly you almost imagine the unseen help of a third leg. Gutierrez partners her to perfection, his tall grace and astounding leaps virtual forces of nature. The Joffrey ensemble literally rises to every occasion and Swan Lake casts a whole new spell.

photos by Cheryl Mann

Swan Lake
The Joffrey Ballet
Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University
50 E. Congress Parkway
scheduled to end on October 26, 2014
for tickets, call (800) 982-2787 or visit www.ticketmaster.com
for more info, visit www.joffrey.org

for info on this and other Chicago Theater, visit www.TheatreinChicago.com

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