Review: In Studies in Blue, Joffrey Ballet Performs a Visual and Sensual Feast of Movement

Blue is a metaphor for emotions, music, sensuality, and an emotionally wrought period in the life of Pablo Picasso. Like Joni Mitchell's "Blue," the Joffrey Ballet's Studies in Blue held me in awe and expanded the meaning of blue even further. This production was well-designed and beautifully choreographed in three parts.

The first dance was Yonder Blue choreographed by Andrew McNichol; it gave me a Kubrick vibe from 2001 A Space Odyssey. The dancers wore various shades of blue with scenic and lighting designs by Jack Mehler. Yonder Blue expresses dance as emotion with the dancers melting into one another and then expanding like flowers blooming, McNichol moves the dancers in perfect unison as a backdrop while a pas de deux weaves in and out of the web of arms and bodies. The Joffrey ensemble is in perfect form, each expressing an intimacy that can only come from a camaraderie among the dancers. The spare and melodic music was by composer and cellist Peter Gregson. McNIchol was inspired by essayist Siri Hustvedt's A Plea for Eros, which explores love from a woman's point of view and shows how love can transform or engulf a person.

Joffrey Ensemble members. Photo by Todd Rosenberg.

Choreographer Stina Quagbebeur premiered Hungry Ghosts for the second dance. It was a privilege to witness this beautiful interpretation of the devastating effects of the opioid epidemic. The lighting and scenery were a stunner from Jack Mehler with gauze-like panels as a backdrop with dancers in shadow behind them. A couple is joyously dancing and in love, until the woman is engulfed in a swaying morass of addiction. The panels move up and down like mist and the dancers are a monochromatic group with the primary male dancer in bright blue and a blue gel on the female dancer until she is drawn into the group. Quagbebeur's choreography has a perfect edge of menace and darkness blending with the haunting music of Jeremy Birchall.

The third dance was Hummingbird, choreographed by Liam Scarlett to Philip Glass' "Tirol Concerto for Piano and Orchestra." Hummingbird is a more lighthearted dance that was first done in 2014 by the San Francisco Ballet. It has the hallmarks of a fine classic that deserves a place in the Joffrey repertoire. The scenic design is a stunning hand-painted backdrop by John Macfarlane. It is an expressionist abstract that folds over the stage with dancers emerging from beneath it. It is cool with a lighting design by David Finn that complements the layering and subtle movement of the fabric. The dancers have some fun with Hummingbird. They are smiling and flirtatiously zipping about the stage. It never fails to amaze me how beautifully sculpted the Joffrey dancers are. They glide into dance positions with feet in perfect alignment and hands always graceful with the fingers positioned as well.

I would be remiss if I did not mention the spectacular live accompaniment by the Lyric Opera Orchestra under the baton of Joffrey music director Scott Speck. The third act in particular featured virtuosic piano and strings for the Glass composition. Most of the dance companies I have reviewed use recorded music and stage some fine performances. However, it takes precision and the use of the body as an instrument to dance so beautifully to live accompaniment. Studies in Blue is an exhilarating production that I highly recommend. The Joffrey Ballet is a jewel of perfection in the cultural landscape of Chicago. Four Stars.

Studies in Blue continues at the Lyric Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive, through February 25. Please visit for performance dates, times and tickets.

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Kathy D. Hey

Kathy D. Hey writes creative non-fiction essays. A lifelong Chicagoan, she is enjoying life with her husband, daughter and three dogs in the wilds of Edgewater. When she isn’t at her computer, she is in her garden growing vegetables and herbs for kitchen witchery.