Joffrey Ballet soars with own brand of Olympics in “Contemporary Choreographers” program

Joffrey Ballet
Chicago Sun-Times

By Hedy Weiss

Forget the Winter Olympics in Sochi. Instead, head to the Auditorium Theatre where, without the aid of snowboards, skis, or skates, the dancers of the Joffrey Ballet are demonstrating the amazing power of the human body and the crazy reach of the artistic imagination in the thrilling “Contemporary Choreographers” program.

It takes immense daring to stage a triumverate of works as challenging to both the Joffrey’s dancers and audiences as the one assembled here by artistic director Ashley Wheater. But the risk will unquestionably pay off. The mix of Chicago choreographer Brock Clawson’s “Crossing Ashland,” British choreographer Christopher Wheeldon’s “Continuum,” and Swedish choreographer Alexander Ekman’s “Episode 31” turns out to be a brilliant, multifaceted showcase of the nearly impossible-to-define term “contemporary ballet.” It also reveals some truly eye-popping facets of the Joffrey company.

Clawson’s piece (set to a mix of music, including work by John Adams, and danced without pointe shoes), is the opener. It begins even as the house lights are still on, as “pedestrians” in street clothes cross the stage, including one man engrossed in his cell phone. But that familiar “exterior” world magically shifts as dancers in flesh-toned leotards arrive, crawling on all fours, and hinting that we are about to get closer to the primal, often less exposed emotional lives of these people.

And indeed we do — both in a superbly danced section for a male ensemble, and then in a fascinating duet, exquisitely performed by Joanna Wozniak and Shane Urton, that explores touch, and the touch-and-go of an intimate relationship. Clawson’s great achievement in “Crossing Ashland” is the way he has infused contemporary dance with a quality it too often lacks — a genuine human connection.

Wheeldon’s ferociously difficult “Continuum” — featuring bravura, precision-tooled dancing by four ideally paired couples — is more abstract and might well be subtitled “Balanchine 4.0.” Like that 20th century master, Wheeldon is a neo-classicist who uses the ballet vocabulary but stretches, abstracts and almost diagrams it in every possible way, with the dancers (here dressed in the most basic forest green leotards) seeming to draw clean lines and angles in space.

Wheeldon has set “Continuum” to a series of piano and harpsichord pieces by the Hungarian modernist Gyorgy Ligeti, whose challenging music (superbly played by Mungunchimeg Buriad and Paul James Lewis) can sometimes sound like the work of a tone deaf Bach drunk on absinthe. But the dancers create their own fierce music, with breathtaking performances by April Daly and Fabrice Calmels, Christine Rocas and Temur Suluashvili, Yumelia Garcia and Rory Hohenstein and Mahallia Ward and Alberto Velazquez.

Finally there is Ekman’s “Episode 31” — an altogether zany and fantastic dance theater “installation” for the full company that is part hipster “Riverdance,” part Ohad Naharin “gaga” style, part Robert Wilson avant-garde and altogether something else. Using the music of Mikael Karlsson, Ane Brun and Erik Satie, and the poetry of Christina Rossetti and Robert Louis Stevenson (with lighting, as it is throughout the program, by a magician named Nicole Pearce), this is a work at once wildly visceral, strangely dreamlike and endlessly surprising. It’s a real knockout, about which far more could be written. But better yet, why not just see it for yourself?