Joffrey pushes boundaries of ballet

  • By TRACIE DARNELL
  • Medill News Service
  • May 14, 2007 @ 7:01 AM
It is rare to see a ballet program in which dancers perform barefoot in one piece, execute acrobatic feats in the next and swing from a rope in another.  Yet during the final performance of the Joffrey Ballet's spring season, with repertoire ranging from classical ballet to daring contemporary choreography and unparalleled gymnastics, the company's ability to shift from one style to the next reigned supreme.

The dance troupe concluded its 50th anniversary season last week at the Auditorium Theatre with a six-ballet program titled "Light Rain," named for the 1981 ballet by Joffrey Artistic Director Gerald Arpino that has become a company signature pieces. The afternoon's choreography showcased the playful side of relationships and sexuality in electrifying compilation.

The afternoon began with "Dance for Yal," a captivating and euphoric solo choreographed by Joanna Haigood and performed by Erica Lynette Edwards. Wearing a vivid red dress and perched on a swing high above the stage, she lunged from one side to the other. Her slow, arching swoops were mesmerizing.  Originally part of a 1996 suite choreographed to song by iconic 20th century female vocalists, "Dance for Yal'' was a short tribute to love filtered through Edith Piaf's smoky voice.

Arresting visual images were the order of the day, and Pilobolus' 1975 "Untitled" provided many of them. The performance ensemble is best known for turning the human body into surprising shapes and moving sculptures, as it did at this year's Academy Awards,. But "Untitled," with a cast of two women and four men, offered something different. Suzanne Lopez and Maia Wilkins looked like proper young Victorian maidens. But, perched on the shoulders of male dancers concealed by the women's bizarrely voluminous skirts, they were nine feet tall. They often glided like elegant ships at sea, but when the men's hairy legs appeared, they turned into lumbering giantesses.

"Valentine," a 1971 Arpino work, is  a comic battle of the sexes with an onstage double bassist serving as referee. Sunday afternoon's skirmish opened with Julianne Kepley and Fabrice Calmels as boxers in their respective corners and Joseph Gustafeste, principal bassist for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, as their muttering, growling, bass-banging referee. As sparring partners, Kepley and Calmels performed with a feisty combination of stunning flexibility and control.

The program concluded with "Light Rain" itself, an exotic, erotic ballet that brought to mind images of Cirque de Soliel. Set to a score that fused languorous Asian music with pulsating rock by Douglas Adams and Russ Gauthier, it often  featured the large cast leaping in exuberant, perfect unison. In the duets, Valerie Robin was a long-limbed, serpentine temptress. 

The program also included "White Widow," choreographed by Moses Pendleton and Cynthia Quinn, and "Caught" by David Parsons.

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