Joffrey Ballet fires arrows straight into the heart in ‘Sylvia’

Joffrey Ballet
Chicago Sun-Times

Anyone who still believes classical ballet is a 19th century art form trapped in amber is advised to take a look at the Joffrey Ballet. For the past several seasons the company has consistently demonstrated that while it practices an art form that can still indulge in fantasies of swans and snowflakes, sylphs and princes, it also has fully discovered a 21st century sensibility. And when you wed the unique beauty and drama of classical technique to a contemporary mindset, something quite astonishing can happen.

The latest proof comes by way of “Sylvia,” choreographer John Neumeier’s wholly re-envisioned version of a ballet first performed in 1876. Just as many theater and opera directors find modern equivalents for the stories told in the works of Shakespeare or Mozart, Neumeier (the Milwaukee-born, Chicago-trained artistic director of Germany’s Hamburg Ballet), has collaborated with extraordinary Greek-born designer, Yannis Kokkos, to create a world that pairs a stylized and timeless “past” with a very identifiable modernity.

The influence of legendary dancer-choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky (a figure of great fascination for Neumeier) can be felt here, especially through his “Afternoon of a Faun.” George Balanchine’s biblical “Prodigal Son” looms as well. And of course modern dance legend Martha Graham’s many mythic creations echo here, too. Neumeier is a modern link to that distinguished legacy, and “Sylvia” brilliantly demonstrates how his use of both a unique movement vocabulary and powerful characterization can both challenge and liberate today’s dancers.

Neumeier has banished anything fey, kitschy or fairy tale-like from his storytelling. The initial arrival of the huntresses in their leather helmets and vests, bows at the ready as they charge across the stage, might just be one of the most thrilling assemblages of ballerinas in recent memory, with Jaiani and Daly leading an ensemble that includes Anais Bueno, Valeriia Chaykina, Nicole Ciapponi, Anna Gerberich, Dara Holmes, Gayeon Jung, Amber Neumann, Christine Rocas and Mahallia Ward. Stunning.

The ballet’s second half flashes forward and finds Sylvia in the bright white gallery of an art museum where a massive white marble male nude sculpture dominates. Sylvia is now the essence of a modern woman in a ravishing red velvet gown, and she is the subject of the intense male gaze of a room of men in tuxedos. A willing yet reticent center of attention, she also is still haunted by the presence of Diana, who arrives in male tuxedo attire, and engages with her acolyte in an erotically charged duet. It is just one of the ballet’s many fierce and immensely complex (if at moments overly complicated) duets between the characters in the ballet.

Neumeier has cast the ballet as if it were theater (and it is), and the dancers respond powerfully. Daly, who dances more or less nonstop throughout, lets the emotion flow as naturally through her face as her body. Arai, a dancer of great poetry, has several danced “monologues” in which he taps into the delicate soul and yearning of Aminta with immense beauty and poignance. Jaiani’s traffic-stopping presence burns the stage with every move. Suluashvili is a master of wicked temptation, with a touch of the devil about him. And Calmels is an intriguing mix of god and man in this work that taps into the hearts of many a lonely hunter. 

Read the rest of the review here