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Flash Review, 3-27: Circus at the Joffrey
Four-ring Ballet in Chicago

By Asimina Chremos
Copyright 2000 Asimina Chremos

CHICAGO--Circus! There was a loose, convivial atmosphere among the matinee audience in the cavernous Auditorium Theater for the final performance of the Joffrey's Spring Program II Sunday. It was a fun afternoon at the theater. Silly, deep, and joyful, all the works presented were beautifully danced and there was terrific live music by the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago Orchestra.

The program opened with "Square Dance," one of the most absurd works that Balanchine ever cobbled together. I'm not sure this one ever should have lived on much past its origination date of 1957. My friend said it was like a homeopathic version of a real square dance, as if a farm-raised square dancer had quickly run through the room while a ballet rehearsal was going on. The odd melange of music of Vivaldi and Correlli, very formal if delicately off-center Balanchine danse d'ecole, and a square dance Caller in jeans and gingham shirt made for an absurd spectacle of the highest order. The musicians were on a raised black platform upstage right, with the Caller (John Oldfield) with microphone downstage right, a formal reference to how things might be inside a barn on a happening Saturday night. The male dancers had red bandannas around their necks. Too bad there wasn't a little hay here and there.

The one thing that I personally would have salvaged from this odd experiment is the beautifully brooding male solo. Balanchine, with all his "ballet is woman" philosophy, is not known for his attention to displaying the male dancer. However, I think his choreography for a solo man is some of his deepest and most intriguing stuff. Dark and introspective, hardly virtuosic in the usual ballet way, the solo for the male lead in "Square Dance" is up there with the Melancholic solo in "The Four Temperaments." The movement delights in intricate little turns on flat, and very "modern" (read 50's) body shapes combined with classical carriage and grace. Willy Shives danced this part very nicely, but somehow I got the notion that the choreography was more intellectual than he was.

Tracy Julias was a sprightly and charming female lead. Her dancing was full of vigor and generosity, and she delineated the choreography with precision and command. To my eye, the Joffrey dancers in general are a little too precious with Balanchine's style. They don't GO for it, they don't squat enough on pointe in plié, and they don't push their physical limits of space, strength, and flexibility in the time allotted to do each thing. It makes the choreography look Nice instead of Shocking, like it could.

Next was the Serious Piece of the afternoon. In "The Moor's Pavane," the Joffrey dancers did a fine justice to José Limón's 1949 masterpiece to that fabulous Purcell score. Every gesture and look was relished and fully demarcated in space, time, and effort. Suzanne Lopez was a snow-white innocent Desdemona, Domingo Rubio a fearsome Moor, Deborah Dawn a deliciously smug and power-hungry Lady. The slimy and secretive Iago character was excellently played by Cornel Crabtree, who was not listed on the program, but an announcement was made. He was awesome! I can't imagine anyone else bringing more texture and pliancy to the role. All of the artists gave depth and lushness to the dancing, very satisfying deep plies in second and nice rich sidebends, and good healthy strong work on the floor. Not things that every ballet company can muster.

What is lovely in "The Moor's Pavane" is the use of color in the composition of the work. The Moor in red, Desdemona in white, Iago in yellow, his wife in orange. As the four characters move throughout the courtly chess game of their intrigue, their Shakespearean costumes enhance their presences and raise the dance to the ancient, symbolic level of a morality play.

Alwin Nikolais's 1953 "Tensile Involvement" was a real crowd-pleaser. I remember seeing this performed by the Nikolais/Louis company years ago and thinking it was kind of a dumb dance, but this time I just loved it! The audience clapped and clapped for all the amusing tricks with the giant rubber bands, like when the dancers held them around their hands and feet making big squares that tilted in time with Nikolais's innovative (for the time) electronic music. Taryn Kaschock was especially deliciously fierce, taking center stage with sharp-angled virtuosity. Pierre Lockett has a wonderfully mobile torso, which he used to great effect. The company performed this work with brio and released exhilarating energy to the eager audience (also inspiring me with strange alliterative powers)

Gerald Arpino choreographed the final work on the program, "Trinity," in 1970 to an exciting rock/jazz fusion score by Alan Raph and Lee Holridge. The choreography was developed during the Joffrey's residency at the University of California at Berkeley, and it emanates the feel of a rock musical like "Hair," but it is Very Ballet. Ballet looks funny sometimes, mixed up with other kinds of movement like vernacular dance and jazz.

Was it in the 70s that ballet companies started using unitards as costumes? In "Trinity" women all wore them with their pointe shoes, and the men all wore tights and leotards. All costumes were in brights and pastels. This dance seemed to say: We are all young and we are all kinds of Ballet People and we are full of love and passion and we are together. We can do amazing lifts with women soaring, pointed toe leading forward upon the long straight arms of our men. We can kick our legs, swing our heads around even with a bun, and move our hips and do a grand jete. We march together, we are beautiful and innocent.

There were three male leads in this rangy, very entertaining and exuberant work. Pierre Lockett carried the piece in a central role, commanding the stage with his long body extending far into space. However, it was Calvin Kitten who rocked my world. Kitten dances with an open heart and an organized body. He can shuck and jive with soul and then kick out a gorgeous spiritual ballet line. He did a wonderful job of integrating the disparate moves of the choreography. Davis Robertson, who was such a tasteful Faune last week, can do some mean breakdancing! Who knew? But he is held in in the heart area when he dances.

At the end of "Trinity," which featured a ritual placing of candles on the stage, the audience leapt to its feet in wild admiration and applause. They were rewarded with a full encore of one of the sections of the work. Everyone went home happy.

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