The Times Are Racing has urgency, but lacks vision | Dance | Chicago Reader

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The Times Are Racing has urgency, but lacks vision

Electric performances heat up a Joffrey program that could use more coherence.

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Antarctica has hit a record high temperature. Sixty thousand known cases of the new coronavirus are causing global panic. Australia is still on fire. And the U.S. is gearing up for elections. The Times Are Racing, the title of the Joffrey Ballet’s winter mixed repertory program, captures a sense of the urgency we surely all feel. Yet few guiding principles—not even escapism—bring order to the presentation. The oldest pieces, Mono Lisa (2003) and The Sofa (1995) by Itzik Galili of Israel, account for two of the three Joffrey premieres—the third being the 2017 ballet by New York City Ballet resident choreographer Justin Peck that closes and titles this show. The other two works, British choreographer Christopher Wheeldon’s Commedia (2008) and Bliss! created on commission by Chicago’s Stephanie Martinez in 2019, offer a nod to modernism with Stravinsky scores. Though the company’s dancers looked in fine form, the program does not cohere into a discernible vision, nor is it truly a study in contrasts.

The evening opens with Commedia, an episodic, deconstructed vision of harlequins set to Stravinsky’s Pulcinella suite under the gaze of a painted set of masked faces. Center stage, a ballerina splats in second position onto the lap of her partner, her legs hooked behind him. It doesn’t have a prelude or a follow-through; it merely exists as an interjection. Commedia is like this—all disjointed steps and scenes that reference the imagery of commedia dell’arte without any of the purpose. Dancers wear incomplete assortments of masks, capes, and ruffs and occasionally execute a stylized gesture amid the technical display, but, in the absence of context, can drama or humor exist? One solution was presented opening night when Gayeon Jung and Edson Barbosa took the stage for the Gavotta con due variazioni. Bright with unpretentious verve, their evident delight in each other made a moment as simple as Barbosa’s head popping up behind Jung’s arm more charming to watch than the pinwheeling lifts that punctuate the work.

While Wheeldon’s work uses scenario as a framework for cerebral technical exploration, Galili’s contributions showcase explosive intensity. Mono Lisa starts with the lights lowered to the floor and a haze of fog. A pair of bare legs (Victoria Jaiani) comes into view. Enter a man (Stefan Goncalvez). A duet of aggressive strutting and fiendishly difficult partnering, sort of like William-Forsythe-meets-voguing, proceeds without a resolution beyond the fatigue of its performers. 

The Sofa, which artistic director Ashley Wheater (recently knighted by the British Empire) describes in his program note as “a light look at romance in the modern world,” is easily the most disturbing piece in the program. Viewed as a rapid-fire series of pratfalls on a sofa that doubles as trampoline, it could be humorous and rather dazzling. And yet, The Sofa simply can’t be viewed in the abstract. A single duet repeats, once with a man and a woman (Temur Suluashvili and Anna Gerberich) and once with two men (Suluashvili and Fernando Duarte), the first time a cartoonish rendition of domestic violence, the second time defusing the tension of the first with the consent that presumably underlies a sadomasochistic relationship. She elbows him in the chest. He picks her up and throws her. She smacks his face and rides him sidesaddle. Etc.—all as Tom Waits croons, “Nobody, nobody will ever love you / The way I could love you / Because nobody is that strong.” The punchline of the piece, that the abusive man becomes the submissive partner in the second duet, is, despite Wheater's program note, particularly problematic in a moment that exactly coincides with the end of Harvey Weinstein's trial—or haven't we learned anything about consent yet? 

Communal masculinity forms the centerpiece of Bliss! where a shirtless set of machos dance in unison, classical steps interspersed with a shoulder roll here, a hip thrust there—a strangely idyllic picture that is interrupted by the intrusion of two women in rhinestone-encrusted figure skater costumes, who distract and fracture the group. With a presence that matches his command of technique, Barbosa gives a standout performance that carries him right into Peck’s work, seen for the first time with a company other than NYCB. Danced by a cast of 20 in sneakers and street clothes, The Times Are Racing is Jerome Robbins’s Glass Pieces with Twyla Tharp’s energy to the relentless pulse of Dan Deacon’s 2012 America album, with lots of patterned pacing, carefully coordinated breaks to the upright order of classicism, and some fabulous male duets. Barbosa’s electric charisma blazes, visualized by the glistening corona of sweat that radiates from his hair as he whips his head, as if youth really were eternal.  v

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