Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Joffrey Ballet

Cal Performances presents
Joffrey Ballet
Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley
March 15th, 2015
by Heather Desaulniers

The Joffrey Ballet has a signature look, or maybe it’s more accurate to say a signature style. Fusion ballet. Fused genres sometimes get a bad rap because the term implies that two styles are simply being meshed together. But ever since Twyla Tharp’s Deuce Coupe in 1973, The Joffrey Ballet has proven time and again that fusion ballet works. It is a distinct mix of traditional, classical elegance and edgy, contemporary surprise. And The Joffrey Ballet’s recent engagement at Cal Performances confirmed that they do fusion ballet better than anyone.

Val Caniparoli’s Incantations was full of geometric curves – from the costumes and spiral hanging lights (both designed by Sandra Woodall) to the abundance of upper body curves in the choreography. When Aaron Smyth was on stage, it was impossible to take your eyes off him, especially in the middle section of the ballet. His jump sequence had height, ballon and technical accuracy, but the landings! Not only did his heels fully meet the ground after every jump, the landings were silent. No sound whatsoever. Caniparoli’s choreography was spot on throughout Incantations, including a lovely pas de trois three quarters of the way through. There was just one puzzling moment. Toward the end of the piece, an African dance motif popped up in one of the men’s solos. The movement itself wasn’t puzzling, but the fact that it was only used twice and introduced so late in the game made it seem out of place.

Up next was Stanton Welch’s Son of Chamber Symphony, a three-part work that the Joffrey originally premiered back in 2012. The first movement was by far the best of the bunch - the music, lighting design and choreography conjuring a life-size chess game. The queen was present in this chapter along with five pawns. Each dancer got a chance to solo, showing what they could do as individuals, and through duets and group sequences, what they could accomplish as a collective. Unfortunately, the second and third movements lost this whimsy, and the forward momentum of the work stalled. Jeraldine Mendoza and Miguel Angel Blanco danced the second movement’s lengthy duet. Mendoza and Blanco both have significant technical and artistic acumen, but visually, they made a rather curious pair. And though Travis Halsey’s costume design showed some out-of-the-box thinking, the armpit cutouts on the men’s wardrobe were an odd choice and not very flattering. After a brief pause, Victoria Jaiani and Temur Suluashvili took the stage in the stunning pas de deux from Yuri Possokhov’s Bells – a meditation of dynamic highs and lows, choreographic simplicity and complexity, sweet moments alongside dramatic interactions.

The Joffrey Ballet’s Cal Performances program closed with creative gusto as the company took the stage in Alexander Ekman’s Episode 31. A solo dancer (dapperly attired in a suit) turns on a lamp downstage left, and begins to walk in slow motion across the front of the stage. The curtain periodically rises and falls revealing the rest of the cast looking part punk youth culture part futuristic restaurant staff (Luke Simcock’s costumes being a wild combination of black and white). Ekman’s choreography was equally diverse with ballet, tap, modern and calisthenics. And so was the mood and energy – a meditative section would morph into pandemonium; hysteria would halt to become stillness. As the first dancer continued his slow motion route around the edge of the stage, the curtain remained open revealing the fullness of the party scene. A community of folks working together, enjoying each other and celebrating life. As the suit finishes walking the perimeter, he turns off the lamp and Episode 31 is over. Why was he there? What was his function? Was he just an observer? Did he want to be part of the action? Was he trying to box in those who are unconventional? None of these questions were answered, and that is why Episode 31 is truly a great dance.

Pictured: Derrick Agnoletti and Aaron Rogers in Ekman's Episode 31
Photo: Cheryl Mann

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