T he development of modern dance was led by women who strained against existing forms to create something new: Isadora Duncan by discarding corsets and shoes, Ruth St. Denis by introducing elements of Eastern dance to mainstream Western culture, Martha Graham by emphasizing the piercing articulation of feeling—each of them consciously resisting the strictures of ballet, a dance developed by European aristocracy and formally modeled on the hierarchy of Louis XIV's court. In this sense, it's a paradox to describe ballet, or classical dance, as "modern"—and more so to devise a program that canonizes choreography by (white) men, though that seems to be the rationale behind the Joffrey's 2017-2018 "Ashley Anniversary" season celebrating Ashley Wheater's ten years as artistic director.
Modern Masters consists of George Balanchine's early workThe Four Temperaments (1946) and Jerome Robbins's late ballet Glass Pieces (1983), both new acquisitions for the Joffrey, sandwiching two recent works by Myles Thatcher and Nicolas Blanc. As danced opening night, The Four Temperaments was executed with pretentious affectation by nearly all involved, as if a pelvic thrust were a codified position rather than the vertiginous tilting of the body from its axis and as if, in the absence of story, there were no drama to be found in the tension of the action itself-falling, threading, pushing, spiraling. Yoshihisa Arai danced the first variation with a billowing loft, wonderfully suspended by unseen forces, but overall the enterprise seemed misunderstood, as though re-created from stills and danced into a mirror without desire, interest, propulsion. The dancers were unassisted by a somewhat phlegmatic rendition of Paul Hindemith's score by the Chicago Philharmonic.
Thatcher's Body of Your Dreams and Blanc's Beyond the Shore each exemplify a different aspect of the problem of contemporary ballet: the tendency to push technique and increase spectacle at the expense of the ability to conjure human life and feeling from nothing but motion and stillness. A hyperactive aerobic workout, Body of Your Dreams has dancers flexing and contorting to slogans about "cellulite" and "flabbiness" and vapid affirmations like "that's incredible" on a loop: it's self-aware about ballet's pledge to youth and beauty, but ultimately it's vacant eye candy, though the dancers perform it with an energy missing from the Balanchine. In six movements with enough costume changes to have drained the entire season's wardrobe budget, Beyond the Shore proceeds with all the appeal of a screensaver-pretty shapes that fill and kill space and time-excepting the duet "Gemini in the Solar Wind" in which the lapidary Victoria Jaiani is conceived as a satellite probing the far reaches of the universe, firmly held in her orbit by Fabrice Calmels.
Glass Pieces rounds out an overlong program with corps dancers walking, bopping, and swaying like time ticking by while sleek principals condescend to appear among them. Oh, America! v