Joffrey swagger a hit

Joffrey Ballet
Ottawa Citizen

By Natasha Gauthier

Triple bill shows off company to utmost

Joffrey Ballet

National Arts Centre March 3

A sold-out Southam Hall greeted Chicago's Joffrey Ballet Saturday night. Clearly it has been far too long since this brilliant-cut company has appeared in Ottawa, and the cheering, appreciative ballet fans let the dancers know they should return as soon as possible.

Joffrey is known for its athletic Chi-town swagger, and Saturday's mixed triple bill of works that fused classical technique with contemporary sensibility was designed to show the company off to the utmost.

The performance opened with William Forsythe's seminal In the Middle, Slightly Elevated, choreographed in 1987 for the Paris Opera ballet. Forsythe, a Joffrey alumnus, created an aggressively virtuosic ensemble piece, where the strict vocabulary of classical ballet is amplified as if through a megaphone. The piece starts off with two female dancers squaring off, sizing each other up like street fighters. The piece then launches into a relentless series of increasingly complex variations, set to a gritty, accelerated techno-pop score by Thom Willems. The Joffrey dancers of both sexes exhibited pure machismo and extraordinary stamina, and imbued Forsythe's work with nervous energy and uneasy, racehorse tension.

The second piece on the program was Christopher Wheeldon's After the Rain from 2005. The work, set to music by the Estonian minimalist Arvo Pärt, is presented as a contrasting yet complimentary diptych. The first section features three couples, clothed all in grey against a moody backdrop.

Wheeldon's striking opening image features the men kneeling on the ground, supporting the women in a variety of extreme hyperextensions. The partnering gets more and more intricate, yet the connection between the dancers remains cool and mechanical. The mood shifts entirely in the second part, a rapturous, achingly sensual pas de deux performed under rosy light. Christine Rocas and Temur Suluashvili were so exquisite, so tender and luminous, they made you entirely forget everything that happened in the first 10 minutes of the piece.

Edwaard Liang's 2010 piece Age of Innocence closed the evening. Liang was inspired by the heroines and heroes of Jane Austen's books, where the courtly manners and societal proprieties of the time both encouraged and frustrated romantic and physical longings. The women are dressed in flowing white dresses and buff-coloured corsets; the men in sheer vests and briefs. Against a backdrop of deep red velvet draperies, they act out a series of ballroom and drawing room dramas.

The highlight of the work, and indeed of the entire performance, was the magnificent pas de deux between dainty Victoria Jaiani and Fabrice Calmels, who at a muscular 6'6" is one of most physically imposing male ballet dancers performing anywhere. Yet Calmels moves like a cat, silently and with beautiful dignity and control; it is Jaiani who is the dangerous force of nature in this couple. In one gasp-inducing moment she runs and flings herself at Calmels, who has his back to her; at the last moment he turns and catches her at shoulder level, stopping the force of her leap in its tracks, before pressing her easily above his head in a dead lift.

It was an impressive display of strength, daring, superlative technique and, above all, trust.