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Wheater has lifted Joffrey Ballet to new heights

11.19.17
Joffrey Ballet
San Francisco Gate

With its banquet of four Bay Area premieres, Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet came on looking like the old Joffrey Ballet on Saturday, Nov. 18, at Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall. That was a good thing. That the troupe now dances at a technical level not achieved in his time by co-founder Robert Joffrey is an even better thing.
 
Credit community support in the Windy City and a decade under Artistic Director Ashley Wheater, a former member of both the Joffrey and San Francisco ballets, for imposing high standards on an ensemble that always possessed spirit aplenty, The three-residency arrangement inked with the Joffrey by Cal Performances will spread over five seasons, and we will watch the company evolve.

Perhaps his career in San Francisco convinced Wheater that the better the company the more first-rate choreographers it will attract. A decade ago, I doubt that the Joffrey could have danced Justin Peck’s effervescent “In Creases,” made for New York City Ballet in 2012. But the eight dancers looked captivating in the work, set to two-piano music by Philip Glass performed onstage by Grace Kim and Matthew Long.
 
Peck seems to conjure order from chaos, creating symmetries Busby Berkeley might have envied. Arms — folded, stretched, jutting, supportive and akimbo — are the focus here, and they metamorphose with the speed this choreographer brings to all of his sleekly neoclassical works. I was impatient to see again how Peck creates group unisons in the time a pianist etches a Glass arpeggio.
 
The audience favorite Saturday was Alexander Ekman’s “Joy,” which bowed this year in Chicago. More an extended physical comedy than a ballet, this behind-the-scenes romp for 28 dancers proved a witty, subversive, if slightly overextended essay. First, the Swedish choreographer asks the dancers to communicate joy, as a neon flamingo descends from the flies. They respond with twisting solos, mad lifts and outrageous slides, while one fellow waters a potted tree.
 
Then comes a sober image of a woman, with an “I quit” look, dropping a ballet slipper, ribbons and all, on the floor. Soon, all the women repeat the gesture in unison. Then, the entire cast returns in high heels, clicking and clacking its way to your funny bone. There’s a lot more, including a shapely, if unnecessary, duet for the exquisite Victoria Jaiani and Fabrice Calmels. But one thing is clear: Ekman has a lot to say about a dancer’s psychology, and the Joffrey’s innately theatrical approach is a wonderful company with which to say it.
 
Earlier, Jaiani appeared with Alberto Velazquez in “Encounter” by Nicolas Blanc, once a San Francisco Ballet principal, now the Joffrey ballet master. Set to part of John Adams’ Saxophone Concerto, the dancers’ narcissistic attack recalls Jerome Robbins’ “Afternoon of a Faun.” Blanc knows the moves, yet the duet feels unfinished.
 
On the other hand, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s “Mammatus” seemed less than fresh. The frenzied, lateral episodes, while physically challenging, lack an organizing principle. The interspersed duets have something interesting to say about partnering, but none of them jells with Michael Gordon’s minimalist score. Alexander V. Nichols’ lighting, especially in the final moments, is splendid.
 
Read the rest of the review here