April 27, 2007

Joffrey pays tribute to co-founder in spring showcase

It was drizzling Wednesday evening as the Joffrey Ballet premiered its spring repertory, Light Rain, in Roosevelt University’s beautiful Auditorium Theater. The light rain outside did not deter the opening- night crowd, however, and the near-capacity audience seemed to relish the definitive Joffrey style—a fusion of classical ballet technique and daring contemporary choreography. This program was one of the most exciting compilations of the company’s work and a true exhibition of the stunning technical prowess that merits the Joffrey’s reputation as one of the premier ballet companies in the world.

The first piece was a last-minute addition to the program: a short, Grecian-inspired piece in which a male soloist executes a set of bravado turns and then lights a replica of the Olympic torch. An excerpt from Joffrey Ballet co-founder and artistic director Gerald Arpino’s “Olympics,” the piece was added to the program to celebrate Chicago winning the United States’ bid for the 2016 Olympic Games.

Next in the program was a moving tribute to Arpino, who has announced that this spring season will be his last with the company. Arpino is retiring, and the company is relocating to a new home on State Street. In honor of the director’s outstanding contributions to the arts, Roosevelt Theater chairman Mel Katten dedicated Lower Box Right #3 to Arpino, who has watched almost every Joffrey performance from that seat for over 50 years. The dedication to Arpino received the evening’s only standing ovation, a much-deserved recognition of his half-century’s dedication to the ballet community.

“Olympics” and the dedication were special opening-night events; the regular program actually begins with “Dance for Yal,” an aerial solo performed on Wednesday evening by Erica Lynette Edwards. Conceived as part of Legends, a suite of dances choreographed to music by iconic female vocalists of the 20th century, “Dance for Yal” is set to the music of Edith Piaf. As smoke rolled listlessly below her like clouds, Edwards performed on a swing that arched high over the audience. She appeared to be flying over Paris. The piece, and Edwards herself, exuded a lovely romantic exuberance that bordered slightly on burlesque. Ultimately, I felt that this dance relied more on visual spectacle than technical perfection.

The next piece, “Untitled,” was the only flaw in an otherwise wonderful program. Choreographed and premiered by another dance company, Pilobolus, “Untitled” is a critique of Victorian social mores as cumbersome and tedious as the period dresses worn by the female soloists. Suzanne Lopez and Maia Wilkins performed the piece on the shoulders of two sets of male dancers, two of whom wore nothing but strategically placed dance-belts and two of whom wore formal Victorian attire. The piece critiques Victorian attitudes toward courting, mating, and birthing children at the expense of beautiful dancing. The program describes the dance as “an experience much like an Alice in Wonderland dream,” but this dream was one from which I could not wait to wake up.

If there had been any doubts in my mind as to whether technical perfection could be married to truly avant-garde choreography and music, “Valentine” put them to rest. “Valentine” is a comic love story played out by a couple who box and spar their way to relationship bliss in a fight refereed by solo contrabassist Joseph Gustafeste, who accompanied the dancers. In a role worlds away from her turn as the lead in the Joffrey’s October production of Cinderella, Julianne Kepley packed a punch as the feisty, flexible half of the power couple. Kepley has incredible musculature, near-perfect turnout, beautiful feet, and a unique combination of flexibility and control. She was particularly impressive when she executed a series of arabesque turns, so it was surprising when her pirouettes appeared rigid and unnatural. Her partner, Fabrice Calmels, excelled as a ballet-dancer-turned-boxer, and the pair delivered an enjoyable, fast-paced performance that was simultaneously primal and cutesy.

The next piece in the program was “Caught,” the evening’s only piece for a male soloist. Calvin Kitten, who also danced in “Olympics,” was extraordinary as the human component of a futuristic pas de deux: a dance choreographed for a man and a strobe light. Kitten timed his grand leaps perfectly, and the strobe light caught him mid-jump as he soundlessly leaped across the stage. Kitten has impeccable timing. Because he was perfectly attuned to the strobe light, it appeared as though he never touched the ground.

The final piece in the program was “Light Rain,” and it was certainly worth waiting for. A unique East-West fusion, the score brilliantly combined the music of the Middle East with banjos, and the dancing was difficult to categorize as anything other than perfect. A contemporary ballet in three movements, “Light Rain” was most captivating when the entire cast was onstage, leaping in perfect harmony. Though lead dancers Valerie Robin and Calmels were gorgeous in their pas de deux, I preferred to watch the entire cast. All dancers seemed to execute their movements cleanly and with artistry. “Light Rain” was a fantastic way to spend a rainy evening, but it would also be a wonderful way to spend a sunny afternoon.