Joffrey Ballet at Zellerbach, January 26-27

9 Feb

When the Joffrey Ballet danced last at the Zellerbach, Ashley Wheater had just been named as its new artistic director, former associate artistic director Adam Sklute had been named as Ballet West’s new artistic head, Mark Goldweber had joined Sklute and Cameron Badsen  waited to see what would happen.  Charthel Arthur would remain for at least another two seasons.

Seven years later, Ashley Wheater is definitely in charge with a string of commissions for the company to his credit.  He brought Age of Innocence, a company commission to the Zellerbach along with the full version of Christopher Wheeldon’s After The Rain and Kurt Jooss’s The Green Table, long one of the Joffrey signature revivals of 20th century dance classics.  The overall impression drew enthusiastic applause at the two performances.  Joffrey’s  forty-four dancers are on target,  with several rare, sensitive interpreters.

Edward Liang has a most unenviable position; like most post-Balanchine choreographers working in the abstract mode, he has to take classical choreography beyond the man who trimmed excess from the technique while supported by many sublime choices from the Western musical repertoire.  As a person who enjoys story ballets, particularly on what it brings forward in a dancer’s expressiveness, I don’t envy the challenge he and others face.  Liang’s  choice, however,did hang around an intriguing notion: the tension and emotions in Jane Austen’s novels and the society she inhabited.

Aided by Maria Pinto’s white ball gowns and white-toned tunics for the men, perhaps ironically underscoredwith the music of Philip Glass and Thomas Newman, two lines, eight men and eight women, face each other to approximate an old-fashioned quadrille.  The arms, however, like suspended wings not fully stretched, signal the tension.  The girls are stiff, demure, non-committal, the men are not thoroughly restrained bucks.

A pas de deux ensues, followed by a male quartet and a second pas de deux before the final ensemble.  The quartet provides ample opportunity to exhibit male testosterone, the men short, almost stocky, given jetes, multiple pirouettes, an odd crossing of the legs on the floor from which they rise and fall, a clear exhibition of frustration.  In the two pas de deux, the women are hoisted and lowered in unusual angles; in one or two moments the women gently touch their partners, initiating the subsequent actions.  The couples on the 26th were Jeraldine Mendoza and Mauro Villanueva, Victoria Jaiani and Fabrice Calmels; Kara Zimmerman and Rory Hohenstein, April Daly and Dylan Gutierrez on the 27th.  While I didn’t particularly appreciate the amazing variety of positions, I was quite impressed with the care and intimacy the partners share, a quality evident in both performances.

The full version of Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain provided the middle work for the two performances. It seemed a trifle odd to see a work with  two rather than three sections, but it may have been dictated by the Arvo Part selections or by Wheeldon himself; the result contained two couples in the first  section, danced to Tabula Rosa while the second to Part’s ubiquitous slow composition, Spiegel im Spiegel.  The Joffrey is just the second company to have the full rights to the work, created originally for New York City Ballet.

What stunned me in both performances was the quality in the pas de deux, first by Victoria Jaiani, the highly, justly praised soloist originally from Russian Georgia, and Fabrice Culmels. Where San Francisco Ballet’s version is famously danced by Yuan Yuan Tan and Damian Smith and becomes the essence of clarity, cool classicism, the Joffrey dances it for warmth and tenderness within the classical vocabulary. The result was overheard at intermission uttered by a middle-aged woman standing in the aisle, “Thank France for producing Fabrice Culmels!” On Sunday Kara Zimmerman and Mauro Villanueva repeated the same emphasis.

Kurt Jooss’s The Green Table continued to make its chilling impact, a ballet  Ronn Guidi once mounted for Oakland Ballet.  The Joffrey was noted for its first revival, including it in its first Dance in America appearance over PBS. It apparently has been danced by Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montreal, lending the costumes and sets.

The ballet’s force lies in the brooding nature of Death and the masked, polished figures of the diplomats draping themselves around the green table opening and closing the work  to music played by two pianists, unfortunately not credited  in the program and I have no press notes.  Eight sets of characters are drawn inexorably into Death’s maw and ghoulish domain in separate variations: The Standard Bearer, The Old  Soldier, The Young Soldier, The Young Girl, The Old Mother, The Women, The Partisan, The Soldiers.  Were it not for the overall strength of the work and the dancers the piece could be accused of being  composed of stock  characters.  But, like  Jose Limon’s  The Moor’s Pavanne, the work’s sheer economy contributes to  its iconic stature.

Having seen Christian Holder, Gary Chryst, Charlene Gehm and Charthel Arthur in some roles, some of whom had worked with Jooss but all with Joffrey, I couldn’t help but be viscerally alert to the strength and poignancy of the portrayals.  Rita Felciano was struck by the essence of the period and evidence of the Jooss influence on Pina Bausch.

Dylan Gutierrez as Death stalked heavily throughout the ballet, a menace in his attack. At the matinee Fabrice Culmels glided through some horizontal floor patterns, leaving the inexorable force and heaviness to crucial contact moments.  I was particularly struck by Christine Rocas’ Young Girl, there was a pliancy and desperation with the rigidity of protest, the contrasts particularly appealing.  Joanna Wozniak’s Old Mother held a degree of fragility; both Death figures held this victim with tenderness.  The Profiteer had to compete with my memory of Gary Chryst.  Derrick Agnoletti conveyed the cunning and final desperation with understanding.  Rory Hohenstein’s Old Soldier reminded me just how totally he gives to any assignment and how good it is to see him once more and given a range of roles to challenge him.

The audience response  delighted the Cal Performances staff, making the press hope for an early return.  Given that memorable residency where Gerry Arpino’s Trinity was premiered, the Bay Area understandably harbors a proprietary interest in The Joffrey Ballet.

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