Rahm Emanuel himself, a longtime honorary board member, kicked off the Joffrey Ballet’s winter residency at the iconic Auditorium Theatre by congratulating the company on its 25 years as a Chicago company. The program was a mix of premieres and newer short works that showcased the absolute stunning virtuosity of the current Joffrey company.
The night began with Christopher Wheeldon’s Commedia set to Stravinsky’s Pulcinella Suite. First we have a colorful explosion of motion and costumes (by the late great Isabel Toledo to whom the night’s performance was dedicated) against a contemporary and graphic designed frame of commedia masks by scenic designer Ruben Toledo, with eight dancers in capes and skirts. The dancing is a quirky exploration of inversions of classical technique with the odd flexed foot and the highly designed gesture underlining the delightful inventiveness of Wheeldon’s work. The lights shift turning the stage and dancers from a stark black and white to a saturated indigo or purple as the music shifts through the luscious dancing. Wheeldon does solos, trios and quartets, all while playing with themes and variations. Romance is in the air several times in the work as in the Gavotta section where the exquisite pair Gayeon Jung and Edson Barbosa are never apart and she bourrees in an embrace where they kiss.
After intermission there are three short works. First is Mona Lisa, a Joffrey premiere, by Itzik Galili. Set to a percussive and compelling sound score created by Galili with Thomas Hofs with striking costumes by Natasja Lansen that leave the legs bare, it begins with a light grid rising to reveal a kind of boxing ring where Victoria Jaiani and Stefan Goncalvez face off. She is not impressed. He pitches her to the wings. Her extensions diminish him. There are flashes of her in an ennui slouch before she pulls up and conquers.
Next we have Stephanie Martinez’s Bliss! to another Stravinsky piece. The six bare-chested men and two women weave and combine and recombine in a complex geometry set off by a movement vocabulary that utilizes rippling spines and fast footwork. There is a sense of play and drama, and an appealing use of isolations that is completely balletic. The one quibble I have is with the costumes: attributed as “costume visualization by the Joffrey wardrobe department,” it does appear they pulled the men’s simple gray neutral pants and the women’s rhinestone skating recital outfits from some kind of costume dress-up stock: the boys and the girls look like they are in different ballets.
Itzik Galili’s comically genius The Sofa is set to the Tom Waits song “No one will love you like I do.” A man and a woman have a complex and probably troubled relationship as they embrace, flop, fling themselves on the cushy foam couch. They tip it over and when it comes back up it’s a man and a man and they do the exact same sequence, which completely changes the interpretation and the humorous beats. It is darkly funny and deeply touching.
Finally, the signature ballet of the evening, the company premiere for which the show is named, Justin Peck’s The Times Are Racing takes the stage. Set to the raucous rock montage by Dan Deacon, the work is a direct descendant of a cross between dance work classics of Arpino’s Billboard and Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room. The work begins with a clump of dancers wearing street clothes (lots of tee shirts with pithy political sentiments) and sneakers around a single popped-up head. This is a sprawling dance with big movements for a cast of 20 dancers that ends with everyone collapsed on the ground. The high-energy technique here is filled with complex footwork and Tharpian gestures, except the torso is still held in a classical weight-defying manner. The choreography is decentralized, then coalesces into an organized geometry that is satisfying and masterful. There is a great deal of humor as when the dancers come in and dance with floating coats. I hope that they remount this piece again soon: it’s gorgeous.
As with all ballet, the Joffrey’s evening The Times Are Racing is only at the Auditorium Theatre, 50 East Ida B. Wells Drive, in Chicago’s Loop, Thursdays through Sunday until February 23, so do NOT wait to get tickets. (Joffrey performances will move to the Lyric Opera House beginning in September.) Ticket prices range from $35 to $182. Running time is approximately two hours with two intermissions. If you miss this repertory it takes a while to catch it again! For tickets and information, go to www.joffrey.org or call 312-386-8905.