Chicago Dance Review: MODERN MASTERS (Joffrey Ballet at the Auditorium Theatre)

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by Lawrence Bommer on February 8, 2018

in Dance,Theater-Chicago


Modern masters indeed. A splendid showcase for steps and leaps, Joffrey Ballet’s annual winter engagement always brings fresh glory to the state of their art. Modern Masters, now enthralling the Auditorium Theatre through February 18, presents four works, only one on a return visit, that test the imagination of dance as much as the limits of the performers: This combined challenge makes sense, since the art begins and ends with bodies moved by minds.

Accompanied by the Chicago Philharmonic conducted by Scott Speck, George Balanchine’s 1946 The Four Temperaments is, as the title implies, a study in contrasts. They come both in Paul Hindemith’s themes and variations and in the moods of the movements. Beginning in stately and composed combinations, it’s built by duets, some mysterious to sacred and others elegantly outstretched, endowed with timeless semaphore gestures as if taken from a frieze. Typical Balanchine in its melding of classical profiles and modern angles, this experiment in extremes feels every bit as psychological as physical.

With the women foils for each temperament and the men in tight white shirts and shiny black leotards, Balanchine explores the “humours” — melancholic sanguinary, phlegmatic, and choleric — with appropriate excess. Even in delineating this diversity, the dances always seem deliberate and determined. They embrace the music so intensely that it would be foolish to separate notes from steps.

A crowd favorite from last year, Myles Thatcher’s deliberately frenetic 2015 Body of Your Dreams gently spoofs the narcissism of gym rats. They must suffer for beauty as they strive for strength. It’s almost gilding the lily to have eight already athletic Joffrey dancers fabricate a spoof of 1980s’ exercise videos. The driving score, by Dutch pop composer Jacob Ter Veldhuis, fuels this fitness craze as the exercisers’ body images change with every step. “Dreams” indeed.

This edition’s big news, of course, is the world premiere of the other-worldly Beyond The Shore, an eclectic five-part invention by Joffrey ballet master and principal coach Nicolas Blanc. Consisting of very different dances in contrasting costumes and pulsating to Mason Bates’ electronic and orchestral backdrop, it plays like a trip to very alternative times and places.

“Netherworld” consists of eight loose-limbed performers in blowsy, blowing garments. The more disciplined section “Broom of the System” suggests partners who almost literally orbit each other as moons do their planets. In “Aerosol Melody,” turquoise-colored Christine Rocas and Rory Hohenstein seem extra-terrestrial astronauts. Victoria Jaiani and Fabrice Calmels, Joffrey’s most notable couple, create the twin-like “Gemini in the Solar Wind.” Four mysterious voyagers forge the intriguingly named “Temescal Noir.” Finally, the even more oddly entitled “Warehouse Medicine” allows the entire ensemble to indulge in beautifully coordinated patterns of limbs, torsos and bodies in fascinating symmetry.

Ending the evening is a wondrous Jerome Robbins work from 1983, not till now performed by the Joffrey Ballet. In honor of the great dance designer’s centenary, the Chicago premiere of Glass Pieces, set to the perpetual motion of minimalist composer Philip Glass, is a rich discovery and a tribute to treasure.

Performed against Ronald Bates’ giant tile wall, the three sections (including one taken from the opera Akhnaten), deliver a purposeful mixture of pedestrian processions interrupted by lyrical outbursts. Brightly lit, the effortlessly virile “Rubric” features the ensemble in a kind of entranced uniformity. It alternates with pas de deux by couples possessed by pirouettes that hint at elaborate mating rituals. Hypnotic and eerily mysterious, the dimly perceived “Facades” (where dancers shrouded against the back wall create spectral silhouettes) highlights Victoria Jaiani and Temur Suluashvili in sculptural intertwinings.

With drums organizing galvanic marches or to gentler accompaniment, the splendid finale assembles the vast 42-member corps de ballet in a Glass-mesmerizing series of revolutions and rotations and sliding, sloping angles. As if escaping from ancient Egyptian reliefs, the men’s hands push back in ostensible warning. The women seem harmonized in timeless tableaux.

This fluid but ceremonial side of Robbins isn’t easily associated with the supple and varied illustrator of West Side Story, Fiddler on the Roof, The King and I, Peter Pan or Gypsy. But it fully incarnates America in the 1980s — industriously urban and urbane, caught up in rhythms too insistent to be ignored. Its communal conviction leaves a perfect final impression for a program that vividly celebrates modern mastery.

photos by Cheryl Mann

Modern Masters
The Joffrey Ballet
Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University, 50 E. Congress Parkway
ends on February 18, 2018
for tickets, call 312.386.8905 or visit Joffrey

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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