Joffrey Ballet has long been renowned for performing and commissioning new works by contemporary choreographers and for reviving dance masterpieces from the past. The company’s most challenging revival and the one featured in its recent program at The Smith Center (TSC) reached back 100 years to Vaslav Nijinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring).
Today, Nijinsky’s choreography for ‘Sacre’ and its equally revolutionary music by Igor Stravinsky are recognized as masterworks which have had major influences on subsequent composers and choreographers. But at its 1913 turbulent premiere in Paris blows and shouts were exchanged by opponents and supporters of the two historic creations.
There are numerous versions of ‘Sacre’ but the Joffrey reconstruction by Milicent Hodson is probably closest to the original. In addition to researching and re-producing the dance it also replicated Nicholas Roerich’s 1913 vibrantly colored Russian peasant costumes and his scenic drops depicting menacing skies and rugged terrains.
When one considers that the original work was performed only seven times -- and a century ago at that, the immensity of re-creating it from just photos, notations and personal recollections takes on staggering proportions.
Nevertheless, Joffrey Ballet overcame all the obstacles and has provided 21st century audiences with a real dance treasure.
The dance centers on a pagan ritual in which a young maiden is chosen to be sacrificed to the life-renewing fertility of spring by dancing to her death.
Of the two scenes, the first had the greater impact not only because the innovative choreography was so unfamiliar but also for its terrifying and possibly prophetic depiction of a tribal society in the grip of collective madness – something that became a reality just 20 years after Sacre’s premiere.
Five different groups of dancers, as though ‘possessed’, stamped their feet, hopped, shook and gesticulated rhythmically in a mesmerizing visual realization of the music.
Without balletic leaps and turns or Tchaikovsky-like melodies, Joffrey’s classically trained dancers captured the primitive essence of the music and choreography and not only confirmed but further revealed the visionary genius of both Nijinsky and Stravinsky.
Artistically and historically the Joffrey performance of ‘Sacre’ at TSC was an exciting and edifying experience and the audience expressed its appreciation with a standing ovation.
Age of Innocence choreographed by Edwaard Liang was described as being inspired by the novels of Jane Austen and the repression of women in the late 18th century. Frankly, I saw neither of those elements in the work. What I did see was beautiful dancing and exquisite choreography and who could ask for more than that?
Mr. Liang fused solos, duets and ensembles into a ballet of exceptional loveliness that seemed to flow as if sustained on one long breath. It was a warm and gracious work performed with a romantic plasticity that complimented the choreography and the music.
The music was by Thomas Newman and Philip Glass. The latter composer departed from his usual minimalist style and provided a flowing melodic score. Maria Pinto’s flesh colored costumes for the ladies consisted of long dresses and later short tunics while the men, bare legged, wore tunics and short shorts.
The ballet began with eight men and eight women lined up facing each other as in a courtly dance. After the couples danced together they returned to their lines and faced front. Beginning with the first dancer and working gradually backwards down the line, each executed the same arm movements creating an illusion of softly rippling waves.
In a section aptly titled Dialogue two men traveled across the stage while alternately performing double saut de basques (aerial turns rising and landing on one leg). It was like a conversation in which the language was ballet steps. Later, four men entered the stage on a run and then, like ice skaters, slid along on their feet before performing energetic solos.
The ladies, always lyrical and feminine, possessed high extensions and flexibility which were used with good taste and never seemed acrobatic. They often took their arabesques slightly off balance so as to fall slowly and gracefully into the arms of their partners.
The choreographer was formerly a member of New York City Ballet and Holland’s Nederlands Dans Theater where he would have been influenced by other acclaimed choreographers like George Balanchine, Jiri Kylian, Hans van Manen and Glen Tetley. Some of those influences could be seen in ‘Innocence’ but never as imitation: Mr. Liang’s choreography was very much his own.
William Forsythe’s In the Middle Somewhat Elevated was set to mostly loud percussive electronic sounds by Thom Willen that often resembled glass being violently smashed.
The aggressive choreography was challenging and pushed the dancers’ bodies to their probable limits -- perhaps excessively so. I wasn’t the only member of the audience made uncomfortable by what at times seemed to be unnecessary physical exploitation.
It should be noted that today’s young dancers are increasingly in need of knee, hip and back surgeries that interrupt their lives and careers -- and for what? Just to raise a leg a few inches higher or twist into some contorted position?
‘Middle’, was created 25 years ago and may have been considered extremely innovative then. But now, to this reviewer at least, it seemed merely extreme. Like the accompaniment, I found it cold, repetitive, and over-long with lots of walking and a movement for almost every note and accent.
There were some passages in the choreography that were inventive and less familiar such as the sudden jagged or undulating body moves in response to similar sounds in the accompaniment.
The dancers projected an attitude which may have been intended to look ‘cool’ but came across as arrogant. However, irrespective of the choreographic nature of the work, the dancing itself was superb.
Throughout the program, individually and as an ensemble, nothing was beyond the reach of the gifted Joffrey dancers. Speed, flexibility, emotion, technique, they had it all and more -- including freedom and freshness, unique among many other long-established troupes.
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