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Dance Review:

JOFFREY BALLET OF CHICAGO at The Auditorium Theatre

BY LUCIA MAURO

The opening week of the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago’s fall season proved the company’s adeptness at impeccably unveiling the rarely seen reconstructions of Vaslav Nijinsky’s groundbreaking ballets from the early 20th century. During the second week, the Joffrey showed its boundless versatility – a combination of artistic director Gerald Arpino’s exquisite, timeless choreography and world premieres by two extraordinary young choreographers. The sensation was one of respect for the past and an exhilarating promotion of future talent.

One of the most anticipated new works on the program was Paul Christiano’s "Miracle, Interrupted" – a power-packed ensemble piece incorporating acrobatics and sign language – that premiered as a work-in-progress at Melissa Thodos & Dancers’ "New Dances 2001" (reviewed here over the summer). Christiano’s movement vocabulary has not changed drastically for the Joffrey staging, but he has evidently expanded the theme of oppression and unfulfilled passion in this four-part deconstruction of the modern/balletic form – including his signature angular twists and combined upside-down splits and head spins.

One of the most invigorating aspects of the piece is that it poignantly uses the always-stirring music of Antonio Vivaldi (excerpts from "The Four Seasons") to tell his daringly honest story of unspoken love and anguish. Christiano, a brilliant technician, opens the piece with a series of sharp contortions that segue into the ensemble’s sliding and intersecting through invisible semaphoric passageways. He is joined in a rapid, emotion-reversing duet with an equally intense but mysterious Stacy Joy Keller. Throughout Christiano’s bold extensions, it looks as if he is pushing away his intrusive limbs.

A technically and emotionally inspiring piece, Christiano can still tighten up the eclectic second ensemble section and tone down some of the more frantic, yearning symbolism.

Those over-anxious melodramatic moments that seep into Christian’s "Miracle, Interrupted" are magnified by the fact that the world premiere of Julia Adam’s subtle psychological dance-theater piece, "Crossing," immediately follows. Lit in smoky, dreamlike hues by Lisa Pinkham and featuring painterly black-tulle costumes by Rebecca Shouse, "Crossing" is a totally integrated work of theater reminiscent of Martha Graham and Agnes DeMille. Minimal props – a picture frame, a doorway and a chair – further solidify Adam’s interest in suggestive transformation.

Six of the Joffrey’s most versatile actor-dancers – Sam Franke, Trinity Hamilton, Calvin Kitten, Matthew Roy Prescott, Patrick Simonello and Kathleen Thielhelm – move lightly but with a mesmerizing self-consciousness through a neo-Gothic landscape of romantic intrigue and contemporary complexity. Each character appears to push the other onto a different path – an idea reflected in the pushing forward/pulling back nature of the movements.

"Crossing," however, could be trimmed. It has its monotonous moments and also comes very close to being more sterile and conceptual than dramatically compelling. But its images continue to haunt me, and its ideas have the capacity to strike one full force days after viewing the performance.

Arpino’s sublime choreography frames the program. And it is a sheer joy and luxury to watch a neo-classical ballet of such inventive precision as "Reflections," set to Tchaikovsky’s "Variations on a Rococo Theme for Violoncello and Orchestra, op. 33." A masterpiece of grace, wit and style, it showcases the supple and strong bodies of the Joffrey dancers. Maia Wilkens and Willy Shives and Valerie Robin and Samuel Pergande carry their otherworldly extensions into yet another galaxy of daring, flawless lifts.

Each dancer in this comprehensive ensemble work shines performing a vast and gorgeous array of slinking angular movements, luscious backbends, mischievous petit pointe work and elongated and elegant phrasing. The familiarity of Arpino’s traditional ballet placement is contrasted with a meticulous off-kilter energy.
This idea is carried through in Arpino’s "Light Rain," always a show stopper as the ensemble performs a modern snake-charmer dance to the Middle Eastern-influenced strains of fusion musicians Douglas Adams and Russ Gauthier. Maia Wilkens and Pierre Lockett are particularly pliable and seductive in a gasping contortionist pas de deux. And the rest of the work is awash in undulating bodies and shimmering splayed hands. You wish this lushly crafted orgasmic dance could go on forever.•

The Joffrey Ballet of Chicago runs through October 21 at the Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress Pkwy. Tickets: $29-$69. Call 312-902-1500.

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