I've been a fan of the Joffrey Ballet since I first saw them perform in Kansas City in the early 70s — long before the company's transplantation first to Los Angeles, then to Chicago, and the demise of its co-directors Robert Joffrey (1988) and Gerald Arpino (2008). The company distinguished itself then by its devotion to the disciplines of classical ballet interestingly fused with some of the best elements of modern dance, in repertory which was always fresh and exciting. Thus I'm happy to report that under its current artistic director, Ashley Wheater, the Joffrey is both making itself new and continuing in that grand tradition. Its performances at Blossom on Saturday evening were elegant, breathtakingly physical and married to five delightful and varied scores immeasurably enriched by live performances from The Cleveland Orchestra (just back from its European festivals tour), tonight under the fine leadership of its departing assistant conductor, Tito Muñoz.
Saturday's dance card included two longer works: Edwaard Liang's Age of Innocence (to music by Philip Glass and Thomas Newman) and James Kudelka's Pretty BALLET (to Martinu's Second Symphony, premiered by The Cleveland Orchestra at Severance Hall in 1943) and two short but intensely virtuosic Pas de deux: Balanchine's Tarantella (to Gottschalk's Grande Tarantelle) and the duet from Adolphe Adam's Le Corsaire, based on Marius Petipa's choreography. The evening was launched with Arpino's Reflections, featuring the Orchestra's new principal cellist Mark Kosower iin Tchaikovsky's Variations on a Rococo Theme.
Concert music always undergoes a few alterations when it serves as a vehicle for dance, and Tchaikovsky's seven variations were leavened by longer pauses — and probably subject to a bit less freedom — than we're used to hearing. But Kosower seemed not to mind sharing the spotlight with a dozen dancers. He was a brilliant and engaging soloist who sailed through his three octave scales, high notes and harmonics with laser accuracy and otherwise musically smiled his way through this mostly upbeat score, only occasionally getting submerged in the wind section. The Joffrey brought its most classic style to Reflections, dancing with verve and elegance. The seventh variation Pas de deux by Christine Rocas and Miguel Angel Blanco was outstanding.
The story line for Age of Innocence purported to be inspired by Jane Austen, the "societal repression of females" and "the strength of the human spirit". Perhaps it was the dissonance between my view of Austen's era and the hip, 20th century minimalist score (drawn from Philip Glass' Symphony No. 3, The Hours and The Secret Agent and the end titles from a Thomas Newman movie score), but I couldn't quite bring that plot to bear. The five sections, "First Dance" (men and women, angular gestures), "First Dialogue" (a steamy duo by Christine Rocas and Mauro Villanueva), "The Men" (energized and highly accented, like the music), "Obey Thee" (calmer movements with English horn and cello solos) and "Parting" (a long scene featuring a ballroom line dance and a touching, elegiac ending) found the Joffrey evoking a whole range of moods and physical styles. The men were strikingly clad in sleeveless jerkins and short shorts, which revealed every sinew and muscle in their strong legs. Austen would have found the frillier women's costumes more familiar. Age was a tour de force of movement which could have sustained many programmatic interpretations.
By way of entremets, two duets followed intermission. Dancers (and tambourine players) Yumelia Garcia and Derrick Agnoletti joined keyboardist Joela Jones in an entertaining romp through all six minutes of Louis Moreau Gottschalk's mid-nineteenth century Grande Tarantelle. Though Gottschalk's salon-esque music probably isn't frenetic enough to cure a tarantula bite, Balanchine used it to design some challenging moves for the two soloists, who performed separately, then together, then ended the dance with a kiss. Adam (also the composer of Cantique de Noël) wrote some spirited music for Le Corsaire,and Riccardo Drigo added more to come up with this Pas de deux, danced both on Saturday and Sunday by Victoria Jaiani and MIguel Angel Blanco. Full of leaps and multiple spins, this five-movement piece gave the soloists abundant opportunities to show off their amazing technique.
The evening came to a satisfying conclusion in Pretty BALLET, a 25-minute work which was as much of an expressive vehicle for the orchestra as for the dancers (and perhaps for Joela Jones as well — Martinu's Second Symphony seems to want to morph into a piano concerto at several points). As the work progressed from its dreamy, atmospheric first movement through ominous plunks and pizzicati to its chatty, rat-a-tat-tat scherzo and transcendent finale, the Joffrey and The Cleveland Orchestra seemed to become a single performing force. Once again, I was puzzled by the program note: "a new ballet that explores the balance between romantic ideals and industrial ideas as they relate to art". Maybe, but one could enjoy Pretty BALLET sheerly for its physicality, whimsy and — OK, visual prettiness — without nailing it to a concept.
At home in Chicago, the Joffrey normally performs with recorded music (one of the ways it ended its current season in the black?) Last weekend at Blossom was a rare treat for balletomanes and orchestra buffs alike. Certainly the opportunity to combine forces more frequently would have moved certain elements closer to perfection (there was some ensemble work on stage which didn't match the precision of the music), but bravo to Ashley Wheater and the Joffrey and to Tito Muñoz and the Cleveland Orchestra pit orchestra for an extraordinary evening of ballet as it should be seen and heard. Did any among the large audience who were at Blossom during the steamier evenings of August think they'd be turning up on Saturday in fleece and huddling under blankets? Probably not, but turn up they did, and the ovation was long and enthusiastic.
This review originally appeared in ClevelandClassical.com's September 7 edition.