Joffrey Ballet – Chicago
“Crossing Ashland”, “Bells”, “Nine Sinatra Songs”
Center for the Arts
George Mason University
March 8, 2014
by George Jackson
copyright 2014 by George Jackson
The Joffrey’s two programs in the Washington, DC vicinity were supposed to have distinct repertory. On the so-called “American Legends” bill of March 7 were Jerome Robbins’ 1945 “Interplay”, Twyla Tharp’s 1982 “Nine Sinatra Songs”, Christopher Wheeldon’s 2005 “After the Rain” duo and Stanton Welch’s 2012 “Son of Chamber Symphony”. Having seen other companies dance all these works except the Welch, and also it being a busy dance week hereabouts, I chose initially to see only the so-called “Body & Soul” bill of March 8 with ballets I didn’t know at all: Yuri Possokhov’s 2011 “Bells”, Alexander Ekman’s 2011 “Episode 31”, and Brock Clowson’s 2014 “Crossing Ashland”. Things changed. Ekman’s work on the second program was replaced by a repeat, but with somewhat different casting, of the Tharp. The reason for the switch seems to have been technical, that the Center for the Arts would have needed more preparation time than was available during the Joffrey’s brief visit for staging the Ekman. Then, I found myself also attending the first Joffrey evening and am glad to have done so. I got to see the company’s dancing from two very different locations and could confirm my impression of the Joffrey’s new look.
Program notes can confuse. The Ashland referred to in Clowson’s “Crossing Ashland” is a Chicago thoroughfare that separates the city’s urban lakeshore neighborhoods from its more humdrum residential neighborhoods. Metaphorically, Ashland could symbolize the diving line between rich and poor, black and white, swingers and the sedentary. It all depends on the poet painting the picture or choreographing the dance. In my time there, Col. McCormick’s Chicago Tribune and Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s House UnAmerican Activities Committee praised the solid citizens west of Ashland and condemned the bohemian leftists who clustered around the University of Chicago campus east of Ashland. Long gone, I think, replaced by bus service, are the clanging streetcars that ran along long Ashland Avenue. What is on stage in Clowson’s ballet are two populations. There are the walkers, dressed in street clothes and there are the body exhibitionists, practically stripped. The exhibitionists do all the interesting dancing. Their muscular torques incorporate balletic steps and body builder pressuring. These nearly naked men and women don’t hesitate to touch. One pair (Caitlin Meighan and John Mark Giragosian) even have an extended relationship. That doesn’t mean, though, that they are totally free of hang-ups. The walkers serve as background, as contrast. They seldom make contact and then only with hesitancy. Relationships remain implicit. Clowson displays his two populations repeatedly but leaves us guessing who, precisely, they are and what will happen. The sound score, dawn from several different composers, serves more as atmosphere than as musical dialog. I don’t think the intent of “Crossing Ashland “ was to make a preamble to the walking and dancing of Robbins’s “Glass Pieces”.
Music, that of Sergei Rachmaninoff for piano, has structural and poetic functions in Yuri Possokhov’s “Bells”. Bodies swing bell-like, legs bounce off each other like clapper and rim. The ringing of bells has connotations such as excitement, commitment or termination. The amalgam of classical ballet movement, characteristic motions and emotional expressions brought together for this suite of eight dances is open, bold, often swirling. Sometimes we see five pairs of dancers. Then there are three women interwoven like the fates of time past, present and future. Four lads, almost as if they were coachmen, fold their arms resolutely and plant their feet on the floor. Possokhov knows how to coin movement, develop form, modulate feelings but is he inventive enough? Certainly he challenges the cast – which included tall Fabrice Calmels – to use its strength dramatically.
Twyla Tharp’s “Nine Sintra Songs” came together spankingly, earning its reputation as an American classic. The Joffrey production has been staged by Crista Francesca Villela with welcome restraint in the various couples’ antics. Lucas Segovia as the tipsy #3 man on Friday night and as the macho #8 man in Saturday’s cast does both characters with an especially light touch, with welcome musicality. On both nights the women showed classical line and articulation in their deployment of ballroom sweep. However, at Saturday night’s performance the contrasts among the couples resonated ever so tellingly.