Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet opens with program focused on the human experience

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“After the Rain,” featuring Victoria Jaiani and Fabrice Calmels, was performed by the Joffrey Ballet during the 2010-11 season. – PHOTO: Herbert Migdoll

Ballet is enjoying renewed public interest and generating enthusiastic audience responses. But has this classical art form retained its relevance amid the dramatically changing social and artistic landscapes of recent decades?

Ashley Wheater, artistic director of Chicago’s world-renowned Joffrey Ballet, says emphatically “yes.” In fact, he believes that ballet couldn’t possibly be more relevant than it is today.

Evidence for this belief, he says, can be clearly seen in “Human Landscapes,” the mixed repertory of ballets that launches the Joffrey’s 2012-13 season. The three works demonstrate ballet’s relevance both through their artistic style and social narratives, he contends.

Universal and timeless, “The ‘Human Landscapes’ program presents the work of three masters searching to understand our place in the world,” says Wheater, a Scottish-born former dancer who joined the Joffrey in 1985 and has served as its artistic director since 2007.

“I was interested in a program of ‘modern’ dances, created across a span of 80 years, hoping to contrast as well as compare,” Wheater says. “Despite differences among the three works in terms of content and style, each choreographer explores aspects of the human experience.”

The cornerstone of the fall program, which runs for 10 performances from Oct. 17 to Oct. 28 at Chicago’s Roosevelt University Auditorium Theatre, is “The Green Table.” Choreographer Kurt Jooss’ 1932 anti-war masterpiece, it tells the story of war and its many victims. Jooss was a Jew who fled Nazi Germany for England prior to World War II.

While the work seems to offer an unmistakable point of view, audiences at its premiere debated whether its dance-of-death motif was a plea for pacifism or a call to arms. In either case, Wheater says, the work exemplifies the power of dance as humankind’s first art form.

“The Green Table” helped launch “tanztheater,” a blend of dance and dramatic elements that grew out of the expressionist dance movement flourishing in Vienna and Weimar Germany in the 1920s and ’30s. German Expressionism is usually associated with film, art or architecture. Fritz Lang’s film “Metropolis” is the movement’s most cited example. “The Green Table” fits neatly into the category.

“The work is modern, sometimes harshly so, with an underlying notion of distorted reality or hyper-realism,” Wheater says. “I think Jooss’ choreography, with its unornamented, angular movements and ‘freeze-frame’ vignettes, fits this understanding.”

Set to the music of Frederick A. Cohen, “The Green Table” also plays a role in the Joffrey’s history. Founder Robert Joffrey first saw the dance performed at age 11 and became committed to reviving it when he formed his own company. The Joffrey premiered the work, subtitled “A Dance of Death in Eight Scenes,” for American audiences in 1967.

The other two works on the Joffrey’s fall program will take viewers’ emotions in distinctly different directions, Wheater says. But they too have great significance for today’s audiences, as well as for the ballet company’s history.

Choreographer James Kudelka’s “Pretty BALLET” had its world premiere at the Joffrey in 2010. Set to Bohuslav Martinu’s “Symphony No. 2,” Kudelka’s four-movement work uses demanding phrases full of quick, sharp changes of direction, along with intricate spatial patterns.

The most abstract of the three works, “Pretty BALLET” is full of swirling motion punctuated by lush and fluid pas de deux, Wheater says. The work explores the subject of ballet itself as a balance between romantic ideals and the discipline it takes to perform. A haunting adagio pas de deux featuring a ballerina in blood-red pointe shoes serves as a metaphor for this tension.

The third work on the fall program is Jirí Kylián’s 1981 work “Forgotten Land,” which the Joffrey has not performed since 1985. Set to music by Benjamin Britten and inspired by an Edvard Munch painting of women on a beach, the work is set before a giant ocean wave that serves as a metaphor for constant movement, erosion and renewal. It uses a motif of pulsing, circular movements reminiscent of waves to invoke treasured memories of lost homelands, lost lovers and lost time. 

Single tickets for “Human Landscapes” range from $31 to $152 and are available at all Ticketmaster outlets, by telephone at 800-982-2787 and online at www.ticketmaster.com.

Joffrey Ballet’s season at a Glance

“Human Landscapes,” Oct. 17–28

“The Nutcracker,” Dec. 7–27

“American Legends,” Feb. 13–24

“Othello,” April 24–May 5