In this brave new normal, ballet premieres come while you’re sitting alone on your couch, instead of in a glittering theater gathered with hundreds of other balletomanes breathlessly awaiting. Perhaps nowadays you dress up for your digital stream, grabbing a quick curbside bite before you settle in to whatever technology you have, and pray your internet connection does not glitch in the middle.
avelIn Joffrey’s Boléro, Anais Bueno is the featured dancer, performing here with Jonathan Dole, Blake Kessler, Jose Pablo Castro Cuevas and Hyuma Kiyosawa. . Photo courtesy Joffrey Ballet.I will be honest, I am still ambivalent about consuming art digitally. While streaming a world premiere offers opportunities in terms of accessibility and reach, one of the truly precious things about dance is its aliveness, its physical realness and its ephemerality. To be able to watch a premiere over and over may bring benefits, but we also lose something by not being in the same time-space, by marking our witnessing of this art with the intentionality of being present. That said, the Joffrey Ballet world premiere Boléro, choreographed by Yoshihisa Arai, is a triumph over the artistic deadzone of the pandemic. Company dancer Anais Bueno stars as the white-shirted protagonist with an ensemble of 15 company members in a production filmed at the Gerald Arpino Black Box Theater in Joffrey Tower in Chicago’s Loop.
Strikingly, all the dancers are masked in their skin-colored lower face coverings, which starts the piece with a familiar yet alien visual. Veteran company artist Temur Suluashvili has designed the Eileen Fisher-esque costumes that give a simple graphic look to the dance. The black box theater contains the work in a way that the expansive prosceniums that Joffrey normally inhabits do not. It fits well within the screen! Arai’s use of ensemble is masterful, and the employment of the repetitive layering of Ravel’s music is mirrored in the movement themes building to the crescendo—formally the 17-minute work is satisfying and lovely. Arai is a choreographer to watch. Boléro is at once a statement of isolation and coping and a declaration of personal power. While the program notes that the work takes inspiration from nature, I found much was a commentary about being apart from the natural state, especially the white business shirt contrasted with the organic skirts of what Arai refers to as Bueno’s disciples.
While the dancing and choreography are first rate, this ballet is now a digital and filmic work as well, and here there are issues. Years ago, public television, in the form of the Dance in America series, had to learn to convert the live art of contemporary dance to the flat screen. Early efforts were awful, but eventually the film director and choreographer worked together, and the camera operators learned to capture without intrusion, thus the intent of the art was able to be showcased and appreciated in the new media. Big Foot Media, who worked with the Joffrey on this production, is not there yet. The camera work was shaky and often cut off body parts. The editing was choppy and not in flow with movement. The overhead Esther Williams-ish shot was disruptive and gratuitous. The ballet shines through and I imagine there were limitations that everyone was working against, but the choreographer and media company must create a partnership that moves together seamlessly. This pandemic will give much opportunity to learn to do better.
Boléro, screening only through Tuesday, March 2, is part of the Joffrey Ballet’s entirely digital season this year. Dance is a time- and body-based art: a dancer must keep dancing and so heroically, Joffrey will continue to produce a season of the most marvelous ballet as is humanly possible. To stream, donate or learn more, go to www.joffrey.org or call 312-386-8905. Viewing is free and you don’t need to register to view Bolero. Also, if you have a smart TV with apps, you can view Boléro on a bigger screen on YouTube. Just search for “Joffrey Boléro” on YouTube.