Joffrey Ballet: Ballet's bright future on display

Joffrey Ballet
Sarasota Herald-Tribune

In the fall of 2010, Jennifer Homans raised hackles in the dance world when she proclaimed in “Apollo’s Angels,” her definitive history of ballet, that the art form was dying.

“Contemporary choreography veers aimlessly from unimaginative imitation to strident innovation,” she wrote, while “today’s artists . . . have been curiously unable to rise to the challenge of their legacy.”

I took issue with Homans’ fatalistic conclusion then and, after watching the Joffrey Ballet perform the work of four living choreographers at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall Thursday night, I feel even more confident she was mistaken.  In fact, the pieces by the youngest of those dance makers – Justin Peck, New York City Ballet’s resident choreographer is 28 and Myles Thatcher, corps de ballet with the San Francisco Ballet just 25 – represented some of the strongest contemporary choreography I have seen in a decade.

Let’s start with Peck, a phenom who remains a soloist with NYCB, though goodness knows how he makes time for it given the increasing demand for his services as a choreographer. He caused a stir with his first piece just four years ago and within two years was named the second ever resident choreographer at the illustrious company, which rests on the choreographic legacy of its founder, George Balanchine.

The program opened with “In Creases,” Peck’s first work for NYCB, and seeing it, you could understand that rapid rise. It may be going out on a limb to say so, but not since Balanchine himself have I seen choreography that was such a personification of  its music, bringing to mind the off-quoted “See the music, hear the dance” of the master himself.

An abstract “black and white ballet” in the Balanchine tradition – the “costumes,” also designed by Peck, had the four men and four women in light gray/white leotards and tights, with the men (rather oddly) in black socks and slippers – it was danced to live music provided by two pianists at facing grand pianos, thundering out the multi-layered score of Phil Glass’s “Four Movements for Two Pianos.” There are echoes of Balanchine too in the dancers’ linked arms, the inventive and ever-changing ensemble patterns and the stream of clever but never cute innovations, yet nothing is derivative or imitative. “In Creases” is structurally, musically and kinetically original, fresh and utterly engaging, a constant unfolding of delightful surprises.

There were so many memorable moments that the person seated next to me commented on my prodigious, in-the-dark note-taking. But I didn’t want to forget the stream of images: The dancers in a vertical line performing a rapid-fire and staccato sequence of angular arm movements, sequentially, but not in unison. A male soloist barely missing the bodies of a line of horizontally prone women as he hopscotches forward, like an infantryman weaving through an obstacle course. A partnered female, her leg extended straight forward and clasped at the ankle like a weapon, “mowing down” the circle of dancers surrounding her as her partner moves her in a slow rotation.

To see such confident creativity and surety of construction in a choreographer so young was, I thought, highly unusual. At least I did until the program moved on to Myles’ Thatcher’s “Passengers,” which the San Francisco Ballet corps member created expressly for the Joffrey last summer. The piece, to Steve Reich’s “The Four Sections and Triple Quartet,” is said to have been inspired by Thatcher’s year of peregrinations with the Rolex Mentor and Protégés Arts Initiative and his intrigue with his fellow, anonymous, travelers.

While I’ve raved about the choreography – and rightly so – I should be remiss not to mention the dancing, which was polished, moving and nuanced throughout. The Joffrey, celebrating its 60th year, has never looked better. Between the dancers’ artistry and the choreographers’ ingenuity, I left the theater feeling the future of ballet as an art form was, contrary to Homans’ dire prediction, quite assured. 

Read the rest of the review here