Brilliant Dancing (and Theater) with the Joffrey Ballet's 'Unique Voices' Program

Joffrey Ballet
Chicago Sun-Times

By Hedy Weiss 

To cut to the chase: The Joffrey Ballet’s “Unique Voices” program, which opened Wednesday at the Auditorium Theatre and created a palpable buzz in the audience, is nothing short of sensational. And it’s downright cheeky to boot.

Consider this: On the heels of the company’s triumph with Christopher Wheeldon’s “Swan Lake,” it is presenting Alexander Ekman’s “Tulle,” a wildly zany send-up of just such a ballet. But this is the sort of satirical piece that only the most superbly honed classical dancers could perform.

For the record: The piece even had the playful audacity to ask it cygnets to whistle the classic Tchaikovsky theme music. And the Joffrey swans did so with delicious abandon — along with counting out loud, clopping with particular noise in their pointe shoes, gasping for breath, and generally airing the “dirty laundry” of their crazily demanding profession with a knowing giddiness.

But more about the Ekman piece later, for the magic of “Unique Voices” lies in its ideally counterpointed mix of the work of three contemporary choreographers: Australian-born Stanton Welch, Canadian James Kudelka and Swedish-bred Ekman. Each piece uses a completely different physical and emotional language, so the overall effect is akin to reading three distinctive pieces of literature, or seeing three plays conceived in radically different styles. This is a program of dance theater at its finest.

Welch’s “Maninyas,” set to a hauntingly beautiful score by the Australian composer Ross Edwards, is a masterpiece . Awash in sensuality, a ferocity of motion, and a fiendish level of difficulty and speed, it is infused with intriguing variations on elements of the Martha Graham modern dance vocabulary (contractions, floor work), performed as only superb classicists could do them. It features five couples who continually emerge from and disappear behind panels of silky fabric, with a series of complex and intriguingly fraught male-female relationships captured in pas de deux marked by subtle hand-to-face gestures and flamboyant, serpentine lifts. The arm movements — stylized and exotic, and a language all their own — are exquisite.

Anastacia Holden, a petite but steely-strong dancer with eye-popping technique, was on fire here, and was superbly partnered by Edson Barbosa. Victoria Jaiani and Rory Hohenstein finessed a series of immensely challenging intertwining lifts. And April Daly and Miguel Angel Blanco, Christine Rocas and John Mark Giragosian, and the wonderfully breezy Amber Neumann and Yoshihisa Arai, helped fuel this wild and fluid ballet enhanced by particularly beautiful costumes (designed by Welch), and lighting by Lisa J. Pinkham.

If Welch’s piece is lush and symphonic, Kudelka’s “The Man in Black,” set to six songs covered by Johnny Cash on his late life album produced by Rick Rubin, is the spare poetry of the “open plains.” Danced in cowboy boots, it features an intimate ensemble of one woman (Joanna Wozniak, a splendidly natural actress as well as a richly expressive dancer) and three men of varying temperaments (Fernando Duarte, Agnoletti, and the notably outstanding Barbosa).

The movement, inspired by country-western dance forms, is in perpetual, vinelike motion as the dancers spin out scenarios  loosely related to the lyrics of the songs (“In My Life” “Four Strong Winds” “Sam Hall” ” If You Could Read My Mind” “Hurt” and “Further On Up The Road”) and touch on everything from flirtation, loss, memory, love, regret and rage to a somewhat peaceful resignation.

As for Ekman, he is an inspired joker and a true man of the theater. And in his epic, hilarious “Tulle,” he gives us an encyclopedic look at the sheer looniness of ballet’s conceits and demands, while reminding us of the remarkable feats of technique and sheer Olympian athleticism it demands.

He makes the audience complicit in ballet’s circus aspects, generating our applause for the showy fouette turns and circle of grand jetes performed by April Daly and Miguel Angel Blanco, who are dressed as clowns. He veils the stage of swanlike creatures in the heavy mist that is invariably part of “Swan Lake” productions. And at the same time he never starves us of bravura dancing — from the coolly elegant and controlled Kara Zimmerman (partnered by Dylan Gutierrez), and radiant Jaiani (partnered by Temur Suluashvili), to leggy Jeraldine Mendoza (with Alberto Velazquez), Amanda Assucena  (with her eye-popping balances), and Alex Polito, ideally officious as The Guide, in her dress suit and spiky black point shoes.

The stagecraft — which involves the use of the hydraulic stage over the Auditorium’s orchestra pit, three movable LED screens, clashing cymbals, a terrific manipulated score by Mikael Karlsson and more — is elaborate. But in the end, it’s the Joffrey dancers who triumph. They can do anything and everything.

Note: Both Kudelka and Ekman were on hand to take bows along with the stellar company that interpreted their work with such impressive skill and insight. The bucket of flowers for the “Tulle” cast was a big laugh in itself.