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Dance Review:

JOFFREY BALLET OF CHICAGO at The Auditorium Theatre

BY LUCIA MAURO

In a departure from its eclectic classical-contemporary repertoire, the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago opened its fall season at the Auditorium Theatre with "The Nijinsky Mystique" – a tribute to the revolutionary Russian dancer-choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky. For diehard ballet fans and scholars, the opportunity to view three meticulously reconstructed works, which premiered to much scandal at Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in 1912 and 1913, prove to be a rare and exhilarating treat. But audiences used to the Joffrey’s more accessible works of technical bravura and stunning visual/thematic beauty might find this program tedious and unvaried.

The latter observation is not meant to undermine the value of this all-Nijinsky weekend. In fact, it’s beyond commendable that artistic director Gerald Arpino has allowed audiences to vividly see the progression and development of Nijinsky’s singular choreographic style. And one is constantly struck by the progressive and intensely sexual nature of these works created at a time when ethereal ballerinas on pointe reigned supreme.

But Nijinsky, whose ceremonial/hieroglyphics-inspired movements staunchly challenged the codified balletic traditions of his era, can arguably be viewed as an acquired taste. And "The Nijinsky Mystique" – although mesmerizing and exactingly staged -- is more academic exercise than awe-inspiring entertainment.

The program opens with the American premiere of "Jeux" ("Games"), a combined jocular-ominous pas de trois reconstructed and staged by Millicent Hodson. Set to the music of Claude Debussy, it involves a young male tennis player and the two women who vie for his affection. An errant tennis ball sets this potentially dangerous threesome into complex action.

Deborah Dawn and Maia Wilkins mirror each other’s sculptural movements and semaphoric jousting with laser determination. Willy Shives’ part caddish/part carefree young man flawlessly executes Nijinsky’s bent-kneed "muscle-man" poses. The entire work consists of petite, geometric movements performed close to the ground, with the dancers’ flirtatious gestures taking on the look of extended freeze-frame poses. All three dancers succeed at conveying "Jeux’s" prime paradox: a stately eroticism – both reserved and unbridled.

Nijinsky’s first – and decidedly most famous – work, "L’Apres Midi d’un Faune" ("Afternoon of a Faun"), set to Debussy, unabashedly represents the purest model for his visionary choreography. Inspired by Stephen Mallarme’s poetic reflection on a mythic faun who falls in love with a nymph, this tightly woven portrayal of physical attraction is structured as a "moving frieze" from ancient Greece. So we once again experience Nijinsky’s entangling of orgasmic ecstasy within formal, constricted movement – beautifully reconstructed by Elizabeth Schooling and William Chappell.

Davis Robertson, one of the Joffrey’s most powerful actor-dancers, performs the Faun’s primal two-dimensional gestures and mundane daily-task movements with a ritualized grace. His Faun can be innocent and ravenous; modest and uninhibited – and laced with a tragic sense of isolation (not unlike the choreographer, who spent a large part of his life in a mental institution). As the Leader of the Nymphs, Trinity Hamilton conveys simultaneous apprehension, sympathy and curiosity – her actions framed by an emotion-less chorus of Nymphs in perfect ancient urn-like formation.

The most elaborate piece on the bill is "Le Sacre du Printemps" ("The Rite of Spring") – an epic artistic sculpting of ritualized pagan-Russian sacrifice. Spectacularly recreated by Millicent Hodson and featuring Igor Stravinsky’s urgently pulsating score, this massive ensemble work carries audiences through the cycles of age and youth; life, death and re-birth with cruelty and majesty.

In the first half, villagers engage in menacing and cathartic foot stomping for their homage to Mother Earth. Sages, elders, maidens, tall women on ultra-high half-pointe and "an old woman of 300 years" prepare for the noble sacrifice of a young virgin. The second part centers on the ruthless selection of "The Chosen One" (Taryn Kaschock in a harrowing and heroic portrayal), whose shaky, pleading limbs show the terrified humanity of a woman struggling with the meaning of her divine duty. There’s a crushing inevitability to "Sacre" that illustrates Nijinsky’s impassioned interest in the human heart, mind and spirit.•

The Joffrey Ballet of Chicago’s all-Nijinsky program runs through October 14 at the Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress Pkwy. Tickets: $29-$69. The fall season continues with works by Gerald Arpino, Paul Christiano and Julia Adam, October 18-21, also at the Auditorium. Call 312-902-1500 or log onto www.joffrey.com.

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