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Technical Ecstasy

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Joffrey Ballet of Chicago

at the Shubert Theatre,

January 28-February 2

Ballet Theater of Chicago

at the Athenaeum Theatre,

February 5-9

By Joseph Houseal

What classical ballet training brings, first and foremost, is refinement--of the human form, of dance technique, and of historical appreciation. And in its short winter season at the Shubert the Joffrey established that it's resumed full possession of its powers in two programs characterized by excellent dancing, engaging and varied repertory, and appreciative full houses. Any doubts about the Joffrey finding its place in Chicago or developing a constituency can be put to rest, because in this city it's unique, an established ballet company with a worldwide reputation.

Where many companies have dancers who perform ballet very well, the Joffrey has dancers steeped in the traditions of ballet. Nowhere was this more evident than in the early Robert Joffrey work Pas des Deesses, in which three contemporary ballerinas portray three romantic ones: a ballerina reinterprets technique for a new generation, carving a personality for herself at the same time she's linked to a tradition. In this piece, Lorena Feijoo, Beatriz Rodriguez, and Valerie Madonia incarnated Lucille Grahn, Fanny Cerrito, and Marie Taglioni, finding parallel resonances in lyricism, alacrity, and delicacy that leaped centuries (Madonia, in this work and others, consistently garnered "ahs" for the lush amplitude of her developpe and arabesque extension).

At the end of this century the biggest contribution to classical dance has been a style increasingly known as "extreme ballet," characterized by the work of William Forsythe, John Alleyne, and Ashley Page. To this list of choreographers we can add Alonzo King, whose riveting Cante gives the style a Moorish twist, primarily in the music but also in the dancing. Extreme ballet is noted for its similarity to chaos and complexity theory, featuring different points of perspective at once, simultaneous utterly unconnected choreography, incredible speed, brutal and severe articulation of steps, known forms stretched to a breaking or collapsing point, and a virtuoso technique that hits hard from the beginning: it's the vocabulary of the entire piece, the norm, not the trick at the end. Only technically superior companies can do it, and it requires dancers who are risk takers and full of personality.

This new style is testimony to the strength of classical dance, which when guided by genius, individual or collective, can return to its essence and be reinvented. Kim Sagami excelled in Cante, bringing to it a provocative combination of steely sexuality and almost impassive sensitivity. The traditional music, Arabic and Spanish in flavor, exemplifies the way the ancient can be more avant-garde than the avant-garde (extreme ballet is most often done to music by the likes of John Adams or Philip Glass). A splendid example of global assimilation, Cante is not about influence or inspiration but about the enlightened coexistence of separate aesthetics that share certain qualities: variable time flow, brutal punctuation, a sense of continuum, and a savvy, self-possessed sexuality.

Ballet has a history of restrictive gender stereotyping that the Joffrey's two programs effectively shattered--or, more precisely, put from mind. Untitled, a work created by Pilobolus for the Joffrey, features two women in Victorian dress who are twice human height because under their ten-foot skirts are two nearly naked men. These figures of feminine authority eventually give birth to the two "true" men, who lie on their backs on the floor, straining and helpless, almost butoh in feeling but balletic in form. Two "false" men enter in Victorian high-society garb, and the women mock them and finally get them to fight each other. Then they take on the false men as their inner supports--and suddenly their movement becomes jerky and unnatural. They discard the false men, and the true men beseech the women to rejoin them. After some deliberation, the women reject the true men and use the false men as rocking chairs.

This piece, with its themes of male identity, men and women in society, and the male within the female, is open to many readings. Though it provides a powerful image of feminine power and regality, it also suggests that women sometimes divest themselves of their power and fall into compromise. But all readings are natural extensions of Pilobolus's acrobatic, organic, shape-oriented approach to choreography. They make no overt statements about gender; rather, everything is couched in an understanding of the balletic context. Ballet is not politics, not message, not even plot. It's about the art of classical dancing itself, as it serves the choreographer's ends and the dancers' expressive interpretations.

We get another fascinating look at gender in Chicagoan Randy Duncan's Initiation, whose title evokes both ancient tribal rituals as well as not-so-ancient male behavior. But though Duncan sets the piece to percussive music, he also gives us something fresh and appealing, a positive, modern image of men. The masculinity of the dancers, with their muscular bodies in pale singlets, is under no threat. Yet Duncan reveals an inner femininity in the movement as something fine. The dancers' intimacy, sensitivity, and physicality neither suggest homosexuality nor preclude it. These are millennial men, in touch with both sides of their nature, as were the women in Untitled.

The honesty, decency, and natural power of the performances in these gender-heavy works come naturally to the Joffrey, which exudes a fresh, exuberant sexuality even in a standard pas de deux. Princes and princesses are nowhere to be seen, and James and Freud are in their books, not onstage. The universally understood body--one very basic way to get a handle on ballet dancing--is the Joffrey's expressive mode.

The body is a bridge to the primal, whether it's the inner self of Untitled, the male ritual of Initiation, or the fetish figures from the unconscious in Ann Marie DeAngelo's world premiere. Kali Ma is a bizarre but captivating foray into a world best described as a Bosch painting combined with a Fellini film and scored by a Laurie Anderson of the late Renaissance. DeAngelo, a mighty talent, not only developed the concept and choreographed the piece but wrote some of the music and all of the poetry. And she delighted the audience with her phenomenal skill as a dancer.

I haven't seen technical dancing of the sort the Joffrey served up at the Shubert in a very long time. In every piece Calvin Kitten performed, he astounded and astounded again. The polish he achieved by training in Russia sets him apart. In Gerald Arpino's Suite Saint-Saens, after a circle of grande jetes, Kitten completed five (count 'em, five) pirouettes in plie with a turned-in passe, fell into splits and a seat spin, then threw himself into an airborne battement and whisked himself offstage. Pierre Lockett's lithe dynamism and footwork in Arpino's Light Rain were dazzling. Altogether this was a ballet lover's feast, given Madonia's lofty developpes, Rodriguez's appetite for precision and attack, Daniel Baudendistel's sequence of brises derriere, and double attitude pirouettes by nearly everyone in the company.

The Joffrey reflects Arpino's very Italian, very visceral love for dancers--his dancers. It's evident in the choreography, in his selection of dancers, and in the joy with which they perform. This season celebrated variety and ethnicity. It was refined and accessible. It offered the Joffrey's unique vision of American ballet, in peak form.

Ballet Theater of Chicago has what it takes to carve a niche for itself: commitment. It can be seen in the careful selection of distinguished repertory, in the company's training, and in its devoted followers. Financial trials are nothing new in the dance world--Pavlova and Nijinksy both performed in London dance halls to keep going--and BTC is working through a tough time in honorable fashion. However modest its production elements and promotion, BTC has not sacrificed the dancing. A home-grown company, it's produced three consecutive seasons made up of or including masterful readings of classics: Giselle, the second act of Swan Lake, and now Les Sylphides.

A one-act set to orchestrated music of Chopin, Les Sylphides was created by Michel Fokine, the genius of early-20th-century ballet who also choreographed Le spectre de la rose, Sheherazade, and Petrushka. BTC captured Fokine's forte: cloaking formalist ballet in theatricality. The stylistic consistency they've achieved as a company is due in large part to their training under artistic director Mario de la Nuez. Their ability to realize the essence of earlier styles, too easily lost in this frantic world, is rare. Nuanced epaulement, flourishes of the wrist, and controlled reverie blew the dust off this piece, a paean to romantic yearning and a study in composure. Fokine himself was pleased at its "rare poetic charm and chaste beauty."

The dancing was superb, especially by Rafaela Cento Munoz, whose face looks as if it were cast for this ballet, and by Meridith Benson, whose performing is rivaled by her directing skills: this historically precise, thoughtfully elegant staging is hers. Munoz and Guillermo Leyva Barley--he in cabrioles of alternating direction, she trailing behind in fluttering bourrees--were simple, perfect testimony to Fokine's mastery of his art.

The evening closed with Bizet Symphony, a full-company neoclassical work by Luis Fuente that owes much to Balanchine. And like good Balanchine interpreters, BTC brought to this piece clean synchrony, invigorating attack, bold strokes of movement, complex stage patterns, and hand-in-glove correspondence of music and dance.

Let's hope Chicago's newest challenge to the dance community--dealing with so much fine dancing--can be met by rallying lovers of good dance to support all that's worth being proud of. That would certainly include Ballet Theater of

Chicago.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Joffrey Ballet of Chicago photo by Herbert Migdoll.

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