Monday, February 23, 2015

Everything Was Beautiful at the Ballet: Joffrey Articulates Its Artistry with 'Unique Voices' -- Chicago Dance Review

Dance / Ballet Review

Unique Voices
Joffrey Ballet
Auditorium Theatre, Chicago
February 21, 2015
(Other performance dates; Run ended)

I appreciate artistry--and especially virtuosity--in a wide variety of forms.

So beyond the rock concerts and musical & dramatic theater that comprise the bulk of my live entertainment diet, each year I try get to a combined handful or two of classical, opera, jazz and blues events.

Dance, however, has been much more sporadic as a spectator occurrence. I've averaged less than one dance performance per year--of any kind--and that includes having seen the mind-blowing tap dancer Savion Glover on five separate occasions.

Besides dance-class performances my sister has participated in, and other local troupe events she has encouraged me to attend--both predominantly in a tap vein--most other dance shows I've seen have been out of the U.S., whether a tango show in Buenos Aires, the Plataforma Samba show in Rio, a ballet (Don Quixote) within the Vienna Opera House or the famed Ballet Folklorico of Mexico City.

Other than being taken to The Nutcracker as a kid, until Saturday afternoon the only ballet I've been to domestically was Giselle, by the Kirov Ballet in 2008 at the Auditorium in Chicago, primarily because I didn't get to see a performance by the world renowned troupe when in St. Petersburg, Russia earlier that year.

Photo Credit on all: Cheryl Mann; dancers shown may not be the same
as those I saw at the Feb. 21, 2pm performance
Although I would never be dismissive of dance, and often love it within the context of musical theater--and have also seen Riverdance and the more recent Heartbeat of Home--the fact is that I haven't sought out ballet, modern dance or other performance forms with nearly the frequency or curiosity as I have other cultural events.

I tend to prefer clearly narrative entertainment to more interpretive forms--including Cirque du Soleil and similar shows--so with all the events I do go to each year (including a good number of baseball games each season), constraints of time and money have further conspired to limit my live dance intake.

So although Chicago's Joffrey Ballet is one of the most acclaimed in the world, and the Hubbard Street Dance Company is similarly esteemed in modern dance forms, I had never attended a performance of either.

On various occasions, doing so seemed like something I should do, but never to the point of taking action.

But especially as the production I did see and am ostensibly reviewing--the Joffrey's Unique Voices--has ended its string of shows at the Auditorium, I am writing this just as much to suggest that I seek out a bit more ballet and other dance performances as I am suggesting that others may enjoy doing so as well.

It's not really an excuse, but part of my problem was that I never really knew where to start.

And wasn't ever all that motivated to find out.

But in December, my mom, sister and I attended the Auditorium's 125th Anniversary Celebration, predominantly to see Broadway legend Patti LuPone.

Patti was magnificent, but so too was the entire event, which featured performances by Chicago cultural institutions that once did and/or still call the Auditorium home--including long-ago past tenants the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Lyric Opera.

Dance, a longtime staple of the venue, was majestically represented by Vernard J. Gilmore of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and from the Joffrey, Rory Hohenstein and Christine Rocas delectably performing a number from Romeo and Juliet.

After I wrote a rave review of the Auditorium's Living the History show and shared it--as is my norm--via Facebook and Twitter, Rocas favorited my Tweet. (I had mentioned her among several others in my article, but hadn't directed the Tweet toward her, but rather only to the Auditorium Twitter feed.)

This tickled me--or should I say, had me all a-Twitter--and I instantly imagined trying to interview her for a blog piece, but either noticed or presumed that she would soon be in rehearsal for a full Joffrey production, so I never reached out to her.

But both the Romeo and Juliet performance and Rocas' social (media) grace prompted me to eventually peruse what was upcoming from the Joffrey.

Which is a rather superfluous way of explaining what brought me to Unique Voices for a matinee on Saturday afternoon. (I was happy to score a good ticket in a box near the stage for the lowest price point--just $32--but the cavernous Auditorium surprisingly turned out to be nearly half empty.)

Before I sound like a stalker, I should explain that I really didn't research if Rocas was in Unique Voices before I bought a ticket, though was happy to find that she was (although in fewer pieces at the Saturday matinee than at other performances of this run).

But whatever the stimulation, motivation, provocation, etc., I'm really glad I went.

The program featured three dances, the first titled Maninyas, choreographed by Stanton Welch and staged by Louise Lester to music in a classical vein by Ross Edwards.

This number had 10 dancers, in male/female pairs. At risk of sounding like the neophyte that I am, Maninyas seemed to have something of a Latin (or perhaps Spanish) strain in the dance forms and costumes; see the nearby photo

I enjoyed the piece, which illustrated that ballet isn't only danced in tutus, something further proven by the next number.

All the dancers in Maninyas seemed terrific to me, but based on Saturday's matinee cast list, I believe a ballerina named Mahallia Ward was the most notably featured (apologies for any misidentification). 

Much more obvious was the prima ballerina of the next number, as there was only one woman along with three men.

At this point in my fledgling balletic--and overall dance--appreciation, I can't deny that the music is intrinsic in engaging me, more than any specific dance-step interpretation or appreciation beyond "OMG!" mental exhortations for all the beautiful bodies doing astonishing things.

So it was a delight that the second piece was called The Man in Black and featured the quartet of dancers performing to several Johnny Cash songs, under the choreography of James Kudelka and staging by Gerard Charles.

I came to love Cash in the last few years before his death and the dozen since, more than I ever really appreciated him through the bulk of his legendary career (granted much of it was "before my time").

So although I now relish "I Walk the Line," "Ring of Fire," "Sunday Morning Coming Down" and much of his earlier oeuvre, I fully embraced the late-career, largely cover songs of his American Recordings albums that the Joffrey principally utilized.

And beyond the wondrous dancing, I was able to even further appreciate the brilliance of Cash's cover interpretations, on the Beatles' "In My Life," "Sam Hall"--an English folk song he recorded in both 1965 and 2002--the more recent folk classic "Four Strong Winds," Gordon Lightfoot's "If You Could Read My Mind," Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt" and Bruce Springsteen's "Further on Up the Road," which also abetted my regard for my greatest musical hero, given that it's a relatively lesser-known song from The Rising that Cash imbues with an extra level of sagacity.

Far be it from me to be able to intelligently assess the finer points of ballet, but I really loved what I saw and heard.

Joanna Wozniak--cited in the program as being from Rolling Meadows and the only Chicago area native in the current troupe that includes dancers from Turkey, the Republic of Georgia, Brazil, Australia, Cuba and many other places around the world and U.S.--was accompanied by Derrick Agnoletti, Edson Barbosa and Fernando Duarte.

Though the dance interpretations to the songs weren't primarily acute, I enjoyed how the quartet replicated horse trots on "Four Strong Winds," matched the "a-swingin' I must go" lyric of "Sam Hall" with swinging steps and, most dramatically, to Cash's phenomenal take on "Hurt," portrayed the pain addiction inflicts not only on the user--as deftly embodied by Barbosa--but those who try to provide help, support and love.

It seems probable I won't ever see The Man in Black piece again, at least by a world-class ballet troupe, so I'm especially glad I did.

The third and final number of Unique Voices--titled Tulle, choreographed by Alexander Ekman and featuring numerous dancers including Rocas in a prominent role--was also fascinating and fantastic.

Staged by Marie-Louise Sid-Sylwander and Joakim Stephenson, with some rather haunting music by Mikael Karlsson, Tulle is--per the program notes--"a loving commentary on ballet where Alexander Ekman explores the coded world of classical ballet ... [and] enables the audience to rethink the way in which we perceive ballet."

There is a large cast of dancers in tutus, but also the sounds of a static-laden radio broadcast and video screens that at time show ballerinas speaking candidly about their art--and fears.

"What if they laugh at me; what if they throw tomatoes at me; I have a love/hate relationship with my point shoes," impart a pair of dancers, one of whom I'm pretty sure was Christine Rocas.

The unique A/V accoutrement to Tulle also served to enlighten that ballet began as a social dance form--not a theatrical one--done by aristocrats at official functions as proof of their stature, with King Louis XIV of France said to have been an excellent ballet dancer.

Tulle also had a segment centered around a circus couple enacted by Ogulcan Borova and Amanda Assucena, with the latter pirouetting at least 25 straight revolutions at one point in the most demonstrably impressive spectacle of the entire show.

Altogether, the 2-hour performance--inclusive of two 15-minute intermissions--was rather scintillating.

I effusively bestowed a standing ovation at the end of Tulle--in appreciation for it and the earlier pieces--but was puzzled as to why I was in the vast minority of those, aptly, given what we had witnessed, on their feet.

When opportunity allows, I certainly wouldn't mind viewing a full-work ballet such as Swan Lake, Romeo and Juliet or, once again, Giselle or The Nutcracker.

But for what I surmise to be described as contemporary ballet, with innovative pieces fueled by the imagination of gifted choreographers, stagers and dancers, Unique Voices spoke to me in a powerful way.

So while I still doubt I will become a ballet regular, Joffrey subscriber or dance aficionado, I hope it's sooner than later that I come back to take another spin.

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