"Bells," "Body of Your Dreams," Fool's Paradise"
David Koch Theater
New York, New York
March 30, 2017
by Carol Pardo
copyright ©2017 by Carol Pardo
New Yorkers remember the Joffrey Ballet, not seen in town at full strength since it decamped to Chicago in 1995, as the smallest and scrappiest of the city's (then) big three ballet companies. In Gerald Arpino it has a house choreographer who had his ear tuned to the Zeitgeist and, in Robert Joffrey, a director with a fine grained sense of history made (from "Petrushka" to Balanchine) and in the making (Twyla Tharp's "Deuce Coupe" and the birth of the crossover era). This gala program, rather than exhibiting a choreographic house style or historical sweep (though the company will perform "Giselle" during its 2017-2018 season) was an exercise in curation, with a nod to Artistic Director Ashley Wheater's roots at the San Francisco Ballet.
The evening opened with "Bells" made for the company in 2011 by former SFB principal Yuri Possokhov. A work for five male/female couples, listed as such in the program, one could be excused for assuming that it would unfold as an introduction followed by five duets and a finale; one would be wrong. There are duets but many of them are inter-cut by the corps or blossom from the group only to disappear back into it. And early on, there is a trio of women in head scarves seemingly overcome by grief. Structurally, "Bells" is less predictable than it seems, its theme, the tension between being alone or with a beloved, harder to confirm than it needed to be. (A quote from W.H. Auden, provided at the premiere, was omitted from the program here.) The theme was at its clearest in the second pas de deux, in which complex partnering stood for mutual dependence and a lack of independence. It ended with April Daly taking matters into her own hands, softly, regretfully but authoritatively leaving Fabrice Calmels recoiling as if from a body blow, cowering and shrinking into himself. Calmels is six foot six, to perceive him as small is a visceral shock.
The great disappointment of the piece was that the choreographer did not challenge his music, Rachmaninoff, scored for two pianos and beautifully played by Grace Kim and Kuang-Ho Huang in the pit. Possokhov didn't burrow into his score or go against it. As the clapper swung back and forth, the dancing followed in martial rhythms. During the lyrical passages, he was content to be along for the ride rather than in the driver's seat.
Less than a year old, "Body of Your Dreams" by Myles Thatcher, a corps dancer at the San Francisco Ballet, had its Joffrey premiere at this performance. An octet with men and women in summer white pants or shorts and sleeveless tops with a dash of color, the piece is billed as "a tongue in cheek take on fitness" and on "our obsession with physical perfection". The first didn't make it as far as the back of the orchestra. Though Thatcher did get the rest of his message across, the score (by Jacob Veldhuis) and set (Gloria Cabral) did the heavy lifting.
That score is a fragmented interminable infomercial for a weight loss aid (unspecified) of dubious efficacy "no sweat, no side effects" with enough rhythmic push and variety to keep this exercise machine pumping. Cabral's set looks like a supersized white Formica credenza with four drawers. The two lower ones open to reveal -- what else? -- mirrors. Vanity, body image, pristine perfection, it's all right there.
The dancing makes its contribution too. To the phrase "down on the floor pounding out crunches and sit ups" the dancers hit the deck and do as instructed, demonstrating once again the appeal of trained bodies moving in unison. Just before the end of the piece, a woman power walk's on the shoulders of two men, porteurs as human stilts. Structurally, the dance skitters from group to group, quoted exercise to quoted exercise; I wish it were more tightly woven. But Thatcher makes you think, sitting there in the dark, about how much many of us could benefit from a few crunches, about watching people with what look like perfect bodies, though the dancers probably don't see there bodies as perfect.
Things looked promising as the curtain rose on Christopher Wheeldon's "Fool's Paradise". Two men knelt like guard dogs at a temple gate while a woman, bathed in golden light moved forward. The stage space was alive in three dimensions. But it turned out that the beginning and ending, in which three prone dancers are lifted to form stairs like those on a Mayan pyramid, were the highlights of the piece. In between one could watch Wheeldon, first known for his precocious ability to move large groups of people, work on a smaller scale with a cast of nine. There were quotes from other ballets to identify ("Monotones", "Onegin") but the overall effect was weak and diffuse. But as in "Bells", the music, here for piano (Ms. KIm), cello (Judy Stone) and violin (Florentina Ramniceanu) was worth it on its own.
The performance clocked in at seventy-five minutes, the gala equivalent of a New York minute, with no intermission. One hopes the Joffrey will come back within the next twenty years, stay a little longer, and reveal more about what it has become.
Photographs (top to bottom):|
The Joffrey Ballet in "Bells." Photo by Cheryl Mann.
The Joffrey Ballet's Victoria Jaiani, Temur Suluashvili, and Rory Hohenstein in "Fool's Paradise." Photo by Cheryl Mann.