There's a Harold Pinter play called "Betrayal" in which you watch a relationship develop backward, each scene predating the previous. You could say that, on Tuesday night, Feb. 26, the Joffrey Ballet did something similar with a brief history of modern dance at Minneapolis' Orpheum Theatre.
Beginning the evening with a recently premiered work by the Houston Ballet's Stanton Welch, the Chicago-based company then took the near-capacity crowd to 1987 for a piece by William Forsythe, completing this reverse chronological journey where modern dance began: With a reconstruction of Vaslav Nijinsky's 1913 ballet "Rite of Spring."
It proved an ideal program for showing off the versatility of one of the world's great dance companies, a mix of immediacy and history that demonstrated the grace and athleticism found throughout its tremendously talented corps. Adding to the sense of a special event for this Northrop Dance Season presentation was the presence of conductor Mark Russell Smith and the University of Minnesota Symphony Orchestra, which burst the boundaries of the pit to satisfy the large-scale demands of Igor Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" score, but may have been more impressive on the evening's opening dance, a setting of John Adams' "Son of Chamber Symphony."
For that work, Welch synchronized the movements marvelously with Adams' often offbeat, erratic rhythms, each flip of a hand or backward bend timed meticulously with the music. The piece set up a clash of classical ballet and modern dance, echoes of "Swan Lake" doing battle with Merce Cunningham moves. While the pas de deux to the symphony's slow movement was a beauteous bit of tradition expertly executed by April Daly and Dylan Gutierrez, the hypnotic finale found common ground between the dueling dance traditions amid music that was unmistakably Adams.
Yet the evening held no more vivid demonstration of the dancers' skills than Forsythe's "In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated." Although Thom Willems' industrial-strength score grew wearying with its repetitious funk-flavored bass, drums and synthesized cymbals, the nine dancers were captivating in their fugues and collections of themes and variations.
The chief draw on this program was the 100th anniversary reconstruction of Nijinsky's "Rite of Spring," and it was indeed an admirable artifact, an impressive piece of dance scholarship that left little doubt why the original caused such a ruckus in Paris in 1913. Ironically, the work that may have been the beginning of modern dance was actually ancient in origin, conveying a long-ago tribe's ritual of selection and sacrifice to surging, pulsing rhythms.
After the Welch and Forsythe works, it actually seemed something of an anticlimax, the dancers clearly concentrating on the complicated choreography after delivering the equally difficult works of newer vintage with a seeming effortlessness. But its history lesson was a welcome one. And the troupe's talents richly deserved the audience's enthusiastic response.
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