Chicago Reviews

Joffrey’s “Across the Pond” Showcases Precision, Passion, and a Message

Review by Joe DeRosa; photo by Cheryl Mann

The choreography may have come from “Across the Pond,” but the night was pure Chicago. The late April freezing-rain-thunder-snow somehow blew in from the north, south, east, and west, slickening roads and snarling traffic. Still, it proved no deterrent. The Auditorium Theatre was packed for the Saturday evening opening of the Joffrey’s season finale with ballet fans and dignitaries like the Windy City’s soon to be former mayor, advocate for the arts, ballet school graduate, and Honorary Joffrey Chairman of the Board, Rahm Emanuel, to watch the city’s premier ballet company perform the works of three British choreographers: Andrew McNicol, Liam Scarlett, and Andrea Walker.

To bring to a close a 2018-19 season that has showcased the Joffrey’s mastery of the ballet as a multimedia medium for storytelling–with a string of critically acclaimed narrative masterpieces including Christopher Wheeldon’s “Swan Lake” and “Nutcracker”, as well as the world premiere of Yuri Possokhov’s “Anna Karenina”–the world-class company appeared to be headed back to its roots with a straight up dance program featuring three pieces without swans, digital fast-growing Christmas trees, or unfortunate life choices involving trains.

With the World Premiere of “Yonder Blue”choreographer Andrew McNicol’s study in space and precision–Jeraldine Mendoza and Temur Suluashvili and then Amanda Assuncena and Greig Matthews led the 16 dancer ensemble through a piece that is, at once, sharp and compelling, cold and distant. Framed in what begins as a cool blue box, and set to the music of Cellist Peter Gregson, the piece showcases the dancers’ sheer technical mastery, athleticism, and physical presence as they move from the music’s iterative Philip-Glass-like opening, through a series of scenic and lighting design elements by Jack Mehler, seamless transitions of light color, while the stark and ever slower tempo of the music builds a sense of cold foreboding. As the end nears, the piece is reduced to white noise punctuated by single violin notes, before the music cuts back to Glass. And, as the ensemble dances together and alone, we are left with the strange feeling that–on a cold, dreary, messy Chicago night–we have witnessed something crystal clear, ice dancing on ice  

If “Yonder Blue” is bright, cool, modern, sharp, and distant, Liam Scarlett’s Vespertine is passionate, playful, sensual, and gorgeous. A study in deep reds and nudes, Scarlett’s modern take on Baroque themes is infused with the timeless feel of fantasy and desire. In the dim light of thirteen chandeliers, the dancers flow in and out of the darkness, up and down the stage, in and out of their deep red robes, in varying states of undress, as the music moves from Bjarte Eike’s haunting piece for violin to the intricate and sensual Renaissance and Baroque period music from John Dowland and Arcangelo Corelli. “Vespertine”, or evening, is many things–dark in the best way, playfully erotic, modern and medieval, haunting and joyful–but at all points, the piece is beautifully danced by Leticia Stock, Greig Matthes, Anna Gerberich, Rory Hohenstein, and the supporting eight-member ensemble. And if the piece looks brilliant, and it definitely does look brilliant, the musical performance by Scott Speck and the Chicago Philharmonic sounds every bit as brilliant. In a season that has seen Speck and the Philharmonic at the height of their powers, performing a pair of masterpieces by Tchaikovsky and an original score by Ilya Demutsky for “Anna Karenina”, their deep, rich, and masterful delivery of “Vespertine” was utterly extraordinary.

In the program’s finale, the ballet finished with the pulsing energy and relevant message piece, “HOME” by Andrea Walker. With “HOME” Walker plays on the themes of isolation, longing for connection, and assimilation he experienced as an immigrant living in the UK. In what can only be described as a brave work of art, Walker, who has worked with such musical artists as Coldplay and Brazilian rapper Aggro Santos, mixes raging intensity and a clear passion for “Dreamers” and their cause with a complex and unnerving take on what “acceptance” really means. Through Walker’s choreography, featuring a powerful performance by Fernando Duarte and the 20 dancers he essentially navigates on his search for connection, the Joffrey uses the last moments from “Across the Pond” to remind us that while dance is about the precision showcased in “Yonder Blue” and the passion on full display in “Vespertine”, it is also about finding meaning and making sense of our world in the way that only movement can. At its best, dance moves us, but it can also take us to a deeper understanding of our lives, our city, and our nation. And coming from the world-class Chicago dance company that infused a subtle but powerful message about wealth and exploitation into Swan Lake and reimagined the Nutcracker with a social justice message about the immigrant experience in Chicago, we would expect nothing less.  

The Joffrey Ballet Company’s ‘Across the Pond’ is now playing at the Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Ida B. Wells Dr. through May 5th. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and at theatreinchicago.com.

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