With an engaging, young new director at the helm, a giant showpiece facility just opened downtown, and dance gaining cultural attention both locally and nationally, it’s a surprise to notice the Joffrey matching its new focus and raised standards with an equally powerful commitment to conservatism.
Billed in Left Brain/Right Brain‘s video introduction* as a program focusing on male-female relationships, the company’s spring mixed bill, closed tonight, opens with a work that could take this theme any number of fascinating places—Bronislava Nijinksa’s 1923 Les Noces—and travels to none of them. The last Joffrey show included Nijinska’s brother‘s Le Sacre du Printemps, and again I’ll say I’m glad somebody is doing these pieces. Nothing is botched more consistently in American ballet than curation and programming, and while Les Noces was shown here among works with which it was wholly unable to communicate, at least it was there to be seen in all its historical significance, complexity and mystery. Cameron Basden and Howard Sayette’s restaging is lovingly handled (I worked with Sayette nearly ten years ago on Billy the Kid and can attest to his eye for detail and grasp of essence) and the dancers, minus a few corps members tripped up by the Stravinsky, gave it a full life.
An invitation to wipe Les Noces completely from the mind, Helgi Tomasson’s Valses Poeticos is as vapid and unremarkable as Nijinska’s dance is arresting and (obviously) enduring. The 1990 duet, which Joffrey AD Ashley Wheater danced at San Francisco Ballet, takes a casual approach to the pas de deux, a spontaneous-feeling succession of solos and partnered dances. Mauro Villanueva especially gave it a performance that felt wholly appropriate, if only because it asked us to look for no more in the composition than was obviously (not) there. In better moments Valses is reminiscent of Eliot Feld’s Intermezzo, but in the end it’s its arbitrariness that offends; doubly unfortunate is the fact that one of Nacho Duato’s finer works, the men’s trio Remanso, was made to the same music seven years later and inhabits Enrique Granados’ gorgeous waltzes with wit, subtlety and sterling musicality. Contrasting that work with Tomasson’s platitudinous usage of almost-touched shoulders, exits interrupted with hesitant backward glances, and prudish embraces only makes one appreciate Duato’s interpretation more (and he’s far from my favorite choreographer). As a matter of fact, with the major leap in men’s technique at the Joffrey and its absence from Chicago stages, why not just license Remanso? The annals of dance history are clogged with trite compromises of fascinating, revered music, and the naïve romanticism on display in Valses suggested that the inner turmoil and infuriating impotence of the Russian peasant bride of Les Noces was only so much unnecessary hand-wringing; why stomp around to a dissonant cantata, a victim of cruel traditions that stifle your agency, when you can flit about in a diaphanous slip playing not-too-hard-to-get?
The more I’m seeing of Gerald Arpino’s work the more I’m enjoying it. None so far have been brilliant, but I can connect with the spirit of his dances and engage with them as the honest produce of a sensitive soul. The circumstances and ingredients of 1983′s Round of Angels in particular combine well. It was made after the loss of James Howell, a close friend and assistant of Arpino’s, and was inspired by an etching of five cherubs around a central couple Arpino found at a flea market (the score, the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, is firm bedrock on which to build, too). A corps of five men (Raul Casasola, Jonathan Dummar, David Gombert, Tian Shuai and Michael Smith) were uniformly clean and solid throughout and the principal couple, Victoria Jaiani and Fabrice Calmels, moved into and out of one another’s space with meaning and an immediate, real responsiveness. What makes a ballerina a ballerina, Jaiani did here: When you find yourself in a silver unitard dancing a lengthy, plotless grand pas from the early Eighties under a backdrop of twinkling stars, you must inhabit the role as though everything makes cosmic, inevitable and absolute sense. It was a simple and transporting interpretation of the material, and the closing image (Jaiani held aloft in a rigid diagonal shape, being spun slowly in weightless space) called to mind both astronauts and Glen Tetley’s superb 1973 Poulenc ballet Voluntaries. More impressions of the ballet at its premiere, including its star-studded original cast, can be found in Anna Kisselgoff’s New York Times review here.
With all the anointment, sweeping declaration and infinite gratitude for Christopher Wheeldon’s existence you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting, I continue to desperately want at least some of it to be true. Within the Golden Hour, shown here last fall during San Francisco Ballet’s 75th anniversary tour, was my first exposure to his work outside of video and I was stunned with disappointment. Here again, with Carousel a Dance, I’m wondering just how and why the admiration for his compositions has spun so grossly out of proportion to their quality. It isn’t torture to watch Carousel; built out of a scene extracted from the Rogers & Hammerstein musical and appropriating Rogers’ music to underline the connection, it’s basically one huge setpiece to elevate Billy’s (Thomas Nicholas) and Julie’s (Megan Quiroz) meeting and mutual enrapture to operatic levels of intensity. Tonally it’s pleasant and compositionally it’s fine. But Wheeldon’s movement vocabulary comes from a parallel universe where vital discoveries by post-ballet choreographers never occurred. How exactly is he a savior of the form in light of where Forsythe and Kylián (to name two) took it twenty years ago? Momentum is micro-managed into nonexistence. The fauxdernity of a dancer en pointe but off balance is made even less progressive by the fact that she’s usually shoved there by her partner only to be yanked back to vertical on the following count. Gravity is similarly smothered in interference: Rather than watching bodies fall under their own weight and be taken by the earth, he has dancers pull themselves violently downward for a touch of awkward floorwork and then leap back up as though relieved to return to the known geometries of “contemporary” ballet. Every awkward hold, every bizarrely Cubist pathway of port de bras (not far off Nijinska’s eighty-years-old research, really) is soaked in an impatience with learning about how the body actually functions as an organism with a sublime, built-in set of somatic coordinations and mechanics. His is choreography lost in the woods of formal experimentation, all movement and no dance. Granted, a few of the Joffrey’s dancers (Heather Aagard, Derrick Agnoletti and Patrick Simoniello especially) rise to these suffocating tasks with great priorities and a winning presence. Nicholas is a fine dancer for the role of Billy in carriage and mien, and Quiroz does what she can with the pointlessness of it all. I maintain that those seeking to make Wheeldon a star, however, are doing so only because his particular blend of old-fashioned gender roles and denial of contemporary movement analysis align for whatever reason with their ideas of what ballet is and should be.
*While I fully appreciate the need for most non-dance-geeks to be provided with tools with which to approach something as arcane as Nijinska’s Les Noces, I feel in general it’s a worrisome trend to have to sit through ten or fifteen minutes of slickly produced advertorial in advance of a dance program. Almost all of the content in Joffrey: Creative Edge of Dance was present in the program notes. We live in the Information Age. Research, for the first time in all of history, is ridiculously easy. Got a question? Look it up.