Years ago, I saw the Joffrey Ballet perform Billboards, a collection of choreography set to music by Prince. I can honestly say without pause or agenda that this was the most significant theater event of my life; so much so that it solidified my decision to pursue dance as a career. More than a decade has past since my introduction to this ballet, yet, the images and choreography remain seared into my memory. The difference between then and now is that then, as a relatively inexperienced young dancer, I could not pinpoint what had influenced me so deeply. I was overwhelmed by the performance but I did not know why. Now, I understand that it was not only Billboards that astonished me, but the entire Joffrey Ballet. I loved the piece, but it was the clarity of vision, tone and mood demonstrated by the company that produced such an intense and dramatic effect. The Joffrey Ballet has an amazing awareness of how the music, costumes, sets, casting, and choreography in each individual piece can work together to make sense. The audience is not left wondering what they should be feeling or what inferences they should be making; there can be an unfettered focus on dance and movement. The Joffrey’s recent offering at Zellerbach Hall included three pieces that illustrate this superb coherency. In Pas des Déesses, the audience was transported to a 19th century artistic salon. Twyla Tharp’s Deuce Coupe took everyone on a trip to the beach. And finally, Sometimes it Snows in April navigated the road to heaven.
Robert Joffrey’s Pas des Déesses is based on an 1846 Romantic lithograph and began with four posed dancers replicating the picture, which then came to life onstage. There were several elements reminiscent of an artistic salon from the 1800s: the flowing sheer costumes, the flowery, delicate port de bras, and the intricate footwork-brisés, frappés, sissones, and entréchat quatres. These small quick movements reiterated that this ballet was intimate, made for a smaller audience, perhaps the poets, musicians and philosophers of the 19th century. The choreography also situated the leg at all angles: just off the floor, at 45˚, and in full split penchée. These days, contemporary companies exploit the daring feat and stunning technical athleticism in ballet, and because of this, we forget the delicate beauty of a low leg in arabesque. Everything in this dance was elegant and subtle, working towards the vision of Romanticism. The promise offered by the opening vignette was realized through a commitment to clarity, making the subject of the piece readily apparent.
Twyla Tharp’s Deuce Coupe has an extremely important place in dance history as the first ‘fusion’ or ‘cross-over’ ballet, where classical and modern choreography were mixed together with popular music (The Beach Boys). Today this type of ballet is pervasive; every company mixes different genres and music but, in 1973, critics were not sure that this would work or whether it was even possible. Tharp proved that the way to accomplish this was not only through the music, sets and costuming, but also by using a common thread present in both the traditional and contemporary portions of the piece. In Deuce Coupe, this shared element is control. This theme is introduced by a classical female dancer who appears throughout the piece as the ‘symbol’ of the traditional school, performing academic ballet exercises. As the modern dance sequences began, and were juxtaposed against this conventional movement, it was clear that they too came from the same place of control and intentionality. In the modern choreography, this was evident in the constant direction changes and tempo fluctuations. It is practically impossible to be moving at top speed and then completely freeze unless you are in absolute control of your movement. In the same manner, a dancer cannot be running in one direction and then immediately shift the other way if she does not have command over her body. By linking the different dance genres together using this common denominator of control, this piece again illustrated a repertory committed to a collective vision.
Sometimes it Snows in April is an excerpt from the larger work Billboards and represents the emotional duality that occurs on the road to heaven. The piece began with the sorrow that accompanies death. As dancers stood next to each other under dim lights, tenderly leaning their heads together, it was a scene of heartbreak. During this, the lyrics of the music talk about mourning the loss of a friend. This is the pain of death. A drastic change followed as the trail moved away from death and towards the jubilant reception of heaven. The movement became joyous, exuberant and enthusiastic with an intense diagonal sequence of Russian split leaps and grand jètés where the dancers’ joy of the movement soared. The lights became suddenly bright, revealing the sparkling white and silver costumes of the angels above. Again, every element of the piece fit into this journey from severe grief to unbridled excitement.
The performance of Billboards has stayed with me for years while many others faded away as soon as the curtain went down. I can even still remember portions of the choreography; exact steps that were done on one evening many years ago. There is really only one explanation for this and that is the profound clarity of the work by the Joffrey Ballet which was still evident last week at Zellerbach Hall.