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Dance Review:

JOFFREY BALLET OF CHICAGO at the Auditorium Theatre

BY LUCIA MAURO

Joffrey Ballet of Chicago, which capably navigates contemporary themes and movement vocabulary within a precise classical idiom, may have set out to illustrate its successful fusion aesthetic during its current spring engagement at the Auditorium Theatre. Its opening program, "Multimedia Magic," stretches classical ballet almost Slinky-like from tutu bravura to two works that intricately meld lighting and video technology. Each serves as a playful and erotic build toward the revival of Robert Joffrey’s "pioneering" 1967 rock ballet, "Astarte."

I put the word "pioneering" in quotes because – apart from a live rock score and psychedelic projections of the two dancers – "Astarte" is quite a shallow piece, more excruciating than titillating. And, ultimately, it only plays at – and no doubt capitalized on -- the drug- and free love-era it so superficially aims to encapsulate. But more on the tediously anti-climactic "Astarte" later.

On a positive note, it’s always a treat to experience artistic director Gerald Arpino’s lusciously exacting choreography. His 1986 "Birthday Variations" – set to excerpts from Giuseppe Verdi’s "I Lombardi" and "I Vespri Siciliani" – is a Romantic-style confection that manages to tease and flirt while demanding of its five ballerinas and one male dancer combinations that practically turn the balletic form inside out – from backward partnering to a ghost-like pas de deux involving a stunning stillness within layered and intricate footwork.

Maia Wilkins and Willy Shives exhibit a wry ethereal quality while maintaining the alluring paradox of restrained panache. They are complemented by the pyrotechnics of soloists Taryn Kaschock, Stacy Joy Keller, Deanne Brown and Heather Aagard (who thrills with her perfect execution of a series of fouettes that change focus and direction).

One of the more anticipated works on the program was the world premiere of lead dancer Davis Robertson’s "Strange Prisoners" inspired by Plato’s "Republic." The influences of David Parsons’ 1999 "Caught," an optical illusion forged out of movements and strobe lights (which Robertson also performed with an ironic otherworldliness the same night), are apparent in the piece’s exploration of light and scale.

Overall, while "Strange Prisoners" serves as a sort of politically charged shadow play with bodies, it displays an uneven and excessively self-conscience sense of invention. The first trio of dancers appears transmogrified behind a screen – they grow limbs, even crab claws, and seem to rise into totem poles. They morph, merge and undergo biological separation – all with the mesmerizing help of lighting designers Kevin Dreyer and Keith Prisco.

Robertson’s respect for the crucial lighting element of dance must be applauded. He goes so far as to allow light to reshape bodies. But the less light-driven sections of "Strange Prisoners" move into a different realm altogether. Separate groups of dancers take on the visualization of instruments tuning up before a concert, and then a battle for visual-sonorous dominance ensues (further enhanced by the Bach selections). But such a drastic textural change gives the outside-the-screen sections a disparate feel. There’s more than one dance taking place here.

Robertson’s powerhouse ensemble formations are among his greatest strengths. Yet he may want to think about reigning in and unifying his overflowing desire to experiment so that a provocative message can emerge beyond the stream of unusual visual transmutations.

However, in comparison to "Astarte," Robertson’s multimedia vision for "Strange Prisoners" is a lot more daring, layered and groundbreaking. Of course it can be argued that Joffrey’s "Astarte" helped usher in a larger multimedia movement in performance – paving the way for later innovations like Parsons’ pliable physics experiment, "Caught," and Robertson’s current work. But when one really studies the unadventurous movement quality of "Astarte," it becomes clear that this acid trip of a pas de deux is more about contrived sexiness than era-engulfing substance.

Wilkins and Robertson – two dancers of extraordinary technical prowess and dramatic depth – diligently execute Joffrey’s anguished contortions. But this ballet, based on the titular fertility goddess who "gave herself to all men but was owned by none," exists within no justifiable context. Robertson, clad in a business suit, walks slowly up the aisle onto the stage – awash in Gardner Compton’s distorted, repetitive, disco-ish projections of the dancers and the tinny sounds of a live rock band, which can be considered grand proponents of rock as eardrum-shattering noise.

Robertson then strips down to his Jockey underwear while Wilkins – in an Eastern-inspired unitard and an eye tattoo on her forehead – coaxes Robertson into a hypnotic state. But, apart from the bad simulation of wild and raw sex, nothing really happens on stage. The dancers are restricted to one corner, and their acrobatic stretches are not particularly dangerous or erotic. The final video superimposition of Robertson in his skivvies floating past Buckingham Fountain is more laughable than poignant. Strip the stage of everything but the dancers, and "Astarte" would show its vain vacuity.

The Joffrey Ballet of Chicago performs the above program through April 21 at the Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress Pkwy. It continues April 25-28 with Arpino’s "Kettentanz," Antony Tudor’s "Lilac Garden" and Agnes de Mille’s "Rodeo." Tickets: $29-$69. Call 312-902-1500.

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