It helps to know where one has come from and where one is going. On Monday night at the Granada, Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet showed the ability to honor its past, leap into new territory, and do it all with remarkable self-possession.
Part of what it means to be a ballet company in the 21st century is juggling various and sometimes competing priorities: a repertory of classical and contemporary work, a home season and a touring schedule, the pressure to please loyal subscribers and the imperative to innovate. Versatility is the name of the game, and Joffrey director Ashley Wheater gets that.
The program he chose for the Joffrey’s Santa Barbara debut opened with a restaged version of Gerald Arpino’s “Reflections” (1971), a glittering neoclassical jewel that made for a lovely—if somewhat conservative—first impression. Like the Tchaikovsky to which it is set, “Reflections” presents a rousing theme followed by a series of variations, each one overlapping the next so that one exquisite pas de deux cascades directly into the next.
One of the great joys of the evening as a whole was the intent focus of the dancers on one another, and nowhere was this more apparent than in Lar Lubovitch’s “…smile with my heart,” set to selections from Rogers and Hammerstein performed on stage by a live pianist (Paul James Lewis). Lubovitch is really a modern dance choreographer; his vocabulary includes weighted limbs and fully released necks, as well as elegant lyricism. Despite a few clunky moments, this cast of six came through, capturing the music’s jazzy syncopations in unexpected direction changes and leaps interrupted mid-air. In the final duet, April Daly and the extraordinarily tall Fabrice Calmels referenced Christ on the cross in their dance of desperation and longing. In the end, she stretched out on the floor like a cat, while he molded his long frame to her petite curves.
As if to prove the company’s technical mettle, the program included Balanchine’s notoriously fast-paced “Tarantella,” a folk dance-inspired duet characterized by a flurry of steps and explosive jumps. Amber Neumann and John Mark Giragosian brought total commitment and theatrical panache to this brief yet signature work.
But it was at the end of the evening, with Edwaard Liang’s “Age of Innocence,” that the full picture of the Joffrey emerged. Liang was inspired by Jane Austen’s novels, and much of the action onstage echoes a courtly dance: the men swooping forward in unison, the women skimming across the floor, eyes lowered. The costumes, by Karinska, are corsets and diaphanous white ankle-length skirts for the women, structured tunics and short shorts for the men. Like the movement, the clothing manages to be at once archaic and contemporary, and either way it’s stunning. The urgency builds to a furiously athletic male quartet, and finally subsides into tenderness, but not before we’ve glimpsed the passions that burn just beneath the surface of this highly ordered society.
In this blend of old and new, classic and modern, the Joffrey demonstrated versatility and verve. Those are good tools to have, both for running a ballet company, and in the simple project of moving a body through space.