A matinee at the Joffrey Ballet Chicago can be counted on to draw junior ballerinas in tutus to the grand 1889 Auditorium Theatre. But for The Times Are Racing, the name of the final work as well as the entire program that the Joffrey is now preforming there, the youngsters could have left their tulle at home in favor of jeans and sneakers, specifically Vans high tops.
The sneakers received a lot of ink — and probably sold a lot of tickets — prior to the performance, attracting not only classical ballet buffs but also fans of contemporary work crafted by choreographers with a pulse, like 32-year-old Justin Peck, resident choreographer at the New York City Ballet, who created The Times Are Racing for NYCB in 2017. The Joffrey is the only company outside of NYCB to perform it.
But before I saw Peck’s work, I had a question. As a recreational dancer, I’ve studied ballet, jazz, hip hop, etc. And although I’ve danced in sneakers, I’ve worn special dance shoes with a split sole and enough smoothness to ease turns. I could see the practical side to standard sneakers — their spongy soles buoy leaps, and as a bonus, they will outlast many performances, in contrast to pointe shoes — but I couldn’t imagine how a dancer could turn in sneakers. Matt de la Peña, director of communications at the Joffrey, set my mind at ease: “They added felt to the soles,” he explained.
Perhaps they also added batteries, because The Times Are Racing flaunted supercharged dancing — Edson Barbosa was a whirling dervish — to the beats of electronic musician Dan Deacon’s 2012 album, America. Deacon said his music was inspired by U.S. politics and geography, an appropriate underpinning for Peck’s choreography, created during the turmoil of the 2016 U.S. election.
How does a choreographer express politics in dance? For one thing, the dancers move more often in sequence rather than in unison, as if responding to their neighbors, voters making up their minds one by one. Then, encircled, their arms form graceful chains, a helix of DNA propelling a mutating society.
The Times Are Racing features a couple of pas de deux among the ensemble of 20 dancers, focusing well deserved attention on Dara Holmes and Barbosa and on Amanda Assucena and Alberto Velazquez in the performance I saw. All danced the heck out their Vans, especially Holmes, who somehow managed to display a beautifully arched foot, making her sneakers bend to her will.
But the program has much to offer besides the sneakers. The first third is given over to Commedia, choreographer Christopher Wheeldon’s take on Italian commedia dell’arte, set to Igor Stravinsky’s Pulcinella Suite. Commedia premiered last spring at Chicago’s Symphony Center. Harlequin unitards (costumes by Isabel Toledo, who designed Michelle Obama’s lemongrass lace inauguration ensemble in 2009) skim the dancers’ bodies and highlight the balletic movement, the diamond patterns of the costumes echoed by the angled arms and flexed feet of the choreography. The eight dancers partner in varied combinations, performing thrilling lifts and luscious intertwining. The effect is of puppets who have liberated themselves from their strings, free to dance with elegant ease.
Sandwiched between Commedia and The Times Are Racing is a centerpiece of electric contemporary choreography. The middle of the three pieces is Bliss!, by Chicago choreographer Stephanie Martinez. The 3-Arts Award winner had a challenge on her hands when she was asked to choreograph a dance to music from Stravinsky’s Dumbarton Oaks for last spring’s collaboration with the CSO. Dumbarton Oaks was commissioned by philanthropists Mildred and Robert Bliss to celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary in 1938 — Dumbarton Oaks was the name of the Bliss estate in Washington, D.C. Although Stravinsky composed for ballet, most notably The Firebird in 1910, the concerto he wrote for the couple was a bird of another feather, multilayered and extremely difficult to count out, when counting out is the metronome of dance.
In a pre-performance talk, Martinez revealed her breakthrough. “I was listening to Stravinsky — obsessively — when I was walking downtown,” she explaining. “In a store window a TV showed Bruno Mars dancing. That made me see a way to thread classical music with contemporary ballet, with a little hint of swag” — an apt description of the movements she choreographed.
Martinez further explained that she originally envisioned Bliss! as a piece for male dancers and later decided to add women to the mix. That change plays out on stage with six bare-chested men power-dancing, sometimes forming a flywheel to spin off their testosterone. The entrance of first one and then a second woman shakes things up. The women strut their stuff in bright, sequined tutus, shifting the balance of power.
Two short pieces by Israeli choreographer Itzik Galili straddle Bliss! and garner instant audience buzz. At the start of his career, Galili danced with Batsheva Dance Company, the home of choreography Ohad Naharin, beloved by Chicago audiences for Minus 16 and other pieces. Galili went on to form his own company in Amsterdam, and his choreography has swept the dance world.
The Joffrey stages Galili’s 2003 Mono Lisa — not to be confused with the Mona Lisa, this Mono is all about singularity — a breathtaking pas de deux set to the sounds of an old fashioned typewriter, the clacking of the keys punctuated by the bell of the carriage return. Clad in rust-colored tunics, Victoria Jaiani and Stefan Goncalvez are cogs in an industrial machine who escape the mechanical world through sheer beauty of movement. Goncalvez lifts Jaiani, her legs splayed like wings or — impossibly — lifts her by one leg only.
Only a curmudgeon could resist Galili’s 1995 work The Sofa, set to the music of Tom Waits and in the performance I saw featuring dancers Valentino Moneglia Zamora, Nicole Ciapponi and Yoshihisa Arai, all of whom executed the acrobatic movement — I can only imagine the bruises they must sport — with aplomb. The neon yellow sofa is itself a character in this comedic romance. As Tom Waits croons “Nobody, nobody, will ever love you the way that I love you,” the dancers reveal that love isn’t as steady as those lyrics suggest.
From the audience response, The Sofa may have been the highlight of the program, but take your pick: all of the choreography and dancing excels, and the Joffrey is to be commended for weaving together a program that shows contemporary ballet at its best.
The Times Are Racing
Through February 23, 2020
Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Ida B. Wells Dr., Chicago
Tickets $25–$197 (312) 386-8905 or Joffrey Ballet Chicago
Photos: Cheryl Mann