By Lori Dana
The latest offering from Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet, presents three contemporary works by cutting edge choreographers, woven into an evening of thought-provoking and thoroughly engaging entertainment. During his introductory remarks, Joffrey Artistic Director Ashley Wheater dedicated the company’s opening night performance to the late Steppenwolf Artistic Director Martha Lavey, who died unexpectedly this week at the age of 60. Wheater proclaimed that, in honor of Lavey, Joffrey dancers would “dance fiercely in a space of joy.”
With Global Visionaries they accomplish that and much, much more. The program opens with a modern interpretation of an early 20th Century “pantomime grotesque”, based on a 1917 Hungarian magazine article by Menyhert Lengyl. Although he began composing The Miraculous Mandarin immediately after reading Lengyl’s story, Béla Bartók’s score did not have a staged performance until 1926.
Audiences in Cologne, where the premiere took place, were outraged at the brutality and blatant sexuality of the piece, and shocked by the savagery of Bartók’s music.
Updated choreography by Yuri Possokov, the edgy costuming of Mark Zappone, and the exquisite live performance of Bartók’s score by the Chicago Philharmonic (conducted by Scott Speck) bring Mandarin into the 21st Century where sadly, its theme is all too familiar. This ballet, originally created for performance with the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra, tells the story of three thugs (Raúl Casasola, Paolo Rodrigues, and Joan Sebastián Zamora) who use a beautiful young girl to lure men into their den, where they will be robbed.
The girl, principal dancer Victoria Jaiani (turned out in red PVC corset, flowing floral scarf and leather jacket) lies in wait for her prey in a lighted acrylic frame that takes the place of the proverbial brothel doorway. As the male dancers swirl around her amid Bartók’s musical pandemonium, she snares two men one after another in sensuous duets.
Both turn out to be penniless. The third, an Asian businessman in a bright blue suit (Yoshihisa Arai), proves to be the girl’s undoing. Jaiani’s exquisite, sculptural dancing and Arai’s bold, athletic sexuality are the perfect vehicles for Possokov’s sensual and dangerous choreography. The girl’s flirtation with her first two victims, and her unintentional attraction to the third are intense, dynamic, and ultimately heartbreaking.
Short intermissions between the dances on the program provide an opportunity to reflect and shift emotional gears. The second piece of the evening, Joy, was created by choreographer Alexander Ekman, known for his sense of humor and commitment to collaborative creative process.
At the heart of Ekman’s piece is the dancer’s answer to his question “How can we express joy through our movement?” Performed to a recorded soundtrack that includes jazz, pop and disco beats, and peppered with wry spoken commentary, Joy is as entertaining as it is unexpected.
What seemingly begins as an exercise in busting ballet stereotypes (you will see toe shoes and stilettos used in ways you may never have before!), Joy develops into a thoughtful commentary on conformity, creating a push-pull of rhythm, vocalization and dance between the group and the individual.
Global Visionaries‘ final dance, Mammatus, is the most abstract performance of the evening. Created specifically for Joffrey dancers by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, the dramatic tension and tight precision of Mammatus stand in sharp contrast to the unbridled savagery and earthy funkiness of the works that precede it.
Performed on a bare stage lit only by an abstract sculpture of white neon bars, to a repetitive, hypnotic score (Weather One by Michael Gordon), Mammatus is driven at a relentless pace. The dancers’ slick hair and black costuming by Dieuweke Van Reij (who also designed the set) evoke a 1930s Bauhaus aesthetic that is reflected in the graphic, repetitive movements of the dancers.
The rationality and functionality of Ochoa’s choreography, expressed as radically simplified physical forms and ritualistic movement, create visual order in response to the musical chaos of Gordon’s score, which is brought to its conclusion by the sound of the wind and appearance of a principal pair (Victoria Jaiani and Dylan Guitierrez) dressed in white. In contrast to the message of Joy, Mammatus seems to subscribe to the idea that conformity can coexist with the individual artistic spirit.
With Global Visionaries, the Joffrey presents to its audiences a rich visual banquet, compelling musical performances, and a range of explorations of emotional and philosophical expression through the medium of dance. You will experience in this fine production the deep communicative value of artistic expression that enhances the human experience for us all.
Global Visionaries production images by Cheryl Mann.