Dance Review: Joffrey Ballet offers tantalizingly modern takes on classical form

Joffrey Ballet
The Dallas Morning News

By Manuel Mendoza

A pair of contemporary dances staged by the Joffrey Ballet this weekend at Winspear Opera House offered tantalizingly modern takes on classical form.

Executed with grace and precision, the partnering in Edward Liang’s Age of Innocence and Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain contorted ballet language and the dancers’ bodies into strangely beautiful positions marked by extreme, oppositional extensions.

But it was the Chicago company’s rare re-creation of the original 1913 choreography for Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring that departed most radically from tradition.

Unlike the Paris premiere 100 years ago, no riot broke out Friday as the Joffrey visited Dallas for the first time in two decades. Presented by arts organization TITAS, the program repeated Saturday.

After the initial controversy, Stravinsky’s modernist experiment quickly gained followers, becoming a concert staple and one of the most loved pieces of music of the 20th century.

In contrast, Vaslav Nijinsky’s choreography was almost immediately abandoned. It was thought permanently lost until historians reconstructed it in 1987 along with the stage designs and costumes.

The groundbreaking music filled the Winspear with atonality, dissonance and rhythmic chaos even before the curtain rose on Nijinsky’s epic tribal ceremony. About 40 dancers dressed in the colorfully patterned garb of native Russian tribes were first seen in four compact groups against a painted hilly landscape. Each group kneeled in a circle, heads down, like cocked forces ready to be unleashed.

When they got up, the dancers hopped and engaged in simple to-and-fro movements almost mindlessly, their actions made powerful by their sheer numbers and the force of their wills. They were like a cult, and as the music grew more piercing and dramatic, a kind of mass panic broke out with a few of the men throwing punches and kicks at one another.

It was a buildup to the main event, the sacrificing of the Chosen One (Erica Lynette Edwards), who stood perfectly still center-stage for several minutes before suddenly coming to life to protest what was about to happen to her, or, in some interpretations, to dance herself to death.

Edwards began by aggressive jumping in place, thrusting her arms upward and kicking her feet to the side as if to say she wasn’t going without a fight. In the end, though, the sight of six men wearing bearskins over their heads and backs was too much for her. She started trembling — like a cornered animal — drumming her knees and whirling in a circle.

For a moment, even the bear-men were awestruck.