Cleveland Orchestra lifts Joffrey Ballet

Joffrey Ballet
Pitsburgh Post-Gazette

By Jane Vranish

It isn't often that two of America's top performing arts organizations meet. The Cleveland Orchestra, skillfully conducted by Tito Muñoz, played host to Chicago's Joffrey Ballet, which rarely performs to live music, over Labor Day weekend at the Blossom Music Center near Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio.

In this summer home of the Cleveland Orchestra, the schedule focuses on classical and pop music, with the Joffrey the lone dance presentation. But when you're going down that avenue, it's best to do it right -- and they did with this company, often ranked as the third best in the United States.

When you think about it, dance often shares a love of classical music. This program featured composers such as Tchaikovsky, who straddled both worlds so successfully; Philip Glass, who may be the modern-day version of Tchaikovsky; and Bohuslav Martinu, whose surging Symphony No 2. fit the bill as well.

So if an audience member wasn't particularly interested in the dance, as was the case with one husband who sat near me, you could close your eyes and listen. Which he did.

This is an area where there is no ballet. DANCECleveland regularly sells out a season of contemporary dance, but the Ohio city has ceased to bring in first-rate touring ballet groups such as the Kirov Ballet and Les Ballets de Monte Carlo. As for the home-grown product, the Cleveland Ballet made a full transition to San Jose, Calif., in 2000, and Ohio Ballet met its demise in 2006.

In a venue that seats more than 5,000, one could sense that this audience was primarily made up of music aficionados. It also brought up a cultural difference between the two art forms. Applause between movements is discouraged at symphonic concerts, while clapping is commonplace at the ballet, even to the extent of giving approval to individual solos. But no one would have thought to applaud certain technical passages by principal cellist and soloist Mark Kosower, visible from the pit on a makeshift platform in Gerald Arpino's "Reflections." Set to Tchaikovsky's "Variations on a Rococo Theme," Mr. Kosower was miked so as to enhance his elegant technique and received his just due from the audience only at the end.

Mr. Arpino's buoyant lyricism helped to define the Joffrey, and it was historically satisfying to use "Reflections" as the opening work on the program. Filled with fluid torso movement atop spirited leaps and dazzling turns, it was regrettably not connected to the music in any way, particularly in the ensemble work, and seemed to get lost on the large Blossom stage.

Of course, the Joffrey is noted for its American personality-plus. But there is a transformation on the way, as was evidenced at Blossom, under artistic director Ashley Wheater, who took over for Mr. Arpino in 2007. This season, nearly a quarter of the company will be new, including Cuban dancer Miguel Angel Blanco, who played a prominent role at Blossom.

He partnered with the lithe Victoria Jaiani in "Le Corsaire" pas de deux, another diversion from the usual Joffrey canon. Over the years, the company has built its reputation on original historical reconstructions (Vaslav Nijinsky's "The Rite of Spring," Frederick Ashton's "Cinderella") and youth-oriented commissions, such as Twyla Tharp's "Deuce Coupe," set to the Beach Boys, and the Prince trilogy. That gave it a singular repertoire that artistically separated and elevated it.

It seemed odd to see a pair of pas de deux that exist in the repertoires of other groups. But it shows that Mr. Wheater is intent on building a stronger classical base. The other duet was George Balanchine's whirlwind "Tarantella" (with Cleveland pianist Joela Jones providing the rippling solos). While Yumelia Garcia and Derrick Agnoletti had the vivacity and technique to pull it off, the dancers were too heavy-handed as the piece proceeded.

The other two ballets had epic proportions worthy of this venue. I saw Edwaard Liang's "Age of Innocence" at Kennedy Center's "Ballet Across America" in Washington, D.C., last June. This performance reinforced his talent, particularly in creating movement for men. But like other young choreographers, he put an overabundance of ideas into his work and will have to learn to edit in the future.

Although it was inspired by Jane Austen, there were just a few suggestions of her social world -- lacy cream-colored costumes, linear movements to be found in a ballroom. The final duet with Ms. Jaiani and Fabrice Calmels was still the emotional highlight, as if pent-up passions were finally released.

Canadian choreographer James Kudelka's "Pretty BALLET" provided the finale, and suitably so. It was easy to appreciate his cinematic touches, reminiscent of Lar Lubovitch, as the men moved slowly at the start and the women double-timed. But somehow his approach periodically unfolded into beautiful lifts.

This is purportedly another in a series of ballets by Mr. Kudelka that were inspired by the history of ballet, and it showed in brief references to the film "Red Shoes" (the ballerina actually wore red shoes here), "Giselle" and "Apollo."

He also juxtaposed it with industrial movements for the men. While that might not make sense, it did give a new angle on the traditional masculine and feminine ideals of the dance. But if you ignored all of that, this was the most musical work of the night, as the women wafted about in long tutus and the men looked like pistons. Until the end, that is, when the luminous power of the music was reflected in the dance.

And given the lovely sylvan setting of Blossom Music Center, that was the perfect goal -- for the dance to be lifted by the music, as if on a summer breeze.