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Treefrog

Joffrey Spring Rep, plus Gala Benefit

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I had the rare (for me) pleasure of two trips to the ballet this week!

Tuesday was the Joffrey's Gala Benefit. No, I'm not a huge benefactor of the company. About two weeks before the event, subscribers were offered two free tickets on a first come, first seated basis. This gesture earned lots of good will, from me at least, and I hope from other Joffrey regulars (even though I suspect the ulterior motive was really to fill the house on this important evening).

However, since my freebie tickets were in the very last row of the orchestra, my impressions were indistinct. More on the Gala later.

Last night we saw the spring repertory performance, "Encore Arpino!", comprising three revivals of pieces choreographed by Joffrey Ballet of Chicago founder and Artistic Director Gerald Arpino, plus the premiere of Arpino's "I/DNA". Think of the program as a box of three chocolates and one piece of gristly meat.

"I/DNA" was hard to swallow. It is Arpino's commentary on the death penalty, specifically on the injustices of its application here in Illinois (where 13 Death Row inmates have been exonerated in the past few years, prompting outgoing governor George Ryan to commute the sentences of all remaining Death Row prisoners). In Arpino's vision, the convicted innocent is Christ, and his execution evokes a Passion Play.

So, much to my surprise, I found my self teasing apart the artistic elements. I didn't care at all for the choreographer's interpretation--most of these men were wrongly convicted of particular crimes, but few were good and innocent people. However, Arpino did a good job of shaping his particular vision. Dolphingirl pronounced the choreography "ingenious."

The set, designed by Ming Cho Lee, consisted of a huge, blood-splattered electric chair over which was suspended a single electric light. The music (by Charles Ives and JBC Orchestra conductor Arnold Roth) opens with impossibly long notes of a descending scale -- so long, we lose track and become uncertain how the progression will resolve. First we see the Fates -- three women garbed in black hooded robes. Christ -- er, "The Man" (Domingo Rubio, bearded and long haired, clad in loose white pants and a tank top) -- emerges to contemplate the chair and his impending encounter with it. He is accompanied by "The Righteous One", played here by the very tall Fabrice Calmels garbed in a long leather coat and looking a tad like a Nazi, but certainly stern and authoritarian, perhaps apocalyptic. Mary -- er, "The Mother" (Deborah Dawn) -- comes forth, dressed in a rather ingenious blue dress that initially is drawn over her head as a shawl (think of every lawn statue you've ever seen) and forms a flowing gown when released. She laments her son's fate. Then, a vision of the past: The Man watches himself as a little boy (9-year-old Tony Montalvo) playing with his mother and foster father (Willie Shives). This scene is really quite effective, in no small part due to Montalvo, who is small for his age, hugely personable, cute as a button, and plays as if he were about six. The focus returns to the present, and ten male "Adorners" leap in adulation and agony. (Why not twelve? Inquiring minds want to know if this is due to artistic vision or a lack of male personnel in the company.) Eventually comes the execution, signalled by edgy music and the momentarily brightening, then dimming, lightbulb.

In case we haven't yet understood the analogy, the Fates hide Christ/The Man so he can strip down to his loin cloth, and two adorners remove him from the chair -- arms straight out, legs hanging and crossed, the perfect embodiment of the Crucifixion. The Adorners bring him to Mary/The Mother for a little Pieta tableau, after which they enshroud him. He becomes resurrected and walks into the sunset.

The piece was met with polite applause, neither affronted nor adulatory. In contrast, the applause swelled during the curtain calls, reflecting the judgment (correct, in my opinion) that the dancers had performed admirably.

Now for the fluffier stuff. The other three pieces had much more of a classical flavor. Pure eye candy, and thoroughly enjoyable.

The evening opened with "Italian Suite", a series of six vignettes from, one supposes, an afternoon in a park or garden where lovers are strolling. The opening vignette, a melange of little pas de deux, sets the scene. The counterplay among the couples is really quite lovely. The women take over the garden in the next vignette. I particularly liked the dancing of Erika Lynette Edwards in this part; she has an extra bit of verve and personality that makes her exciting to watch. Then a lovely pas de deux (Emily Patterson and Samuel Pergande), which is followed somewhat later by a puzzling pas de trois, as Kathleen Thielheim competes with Patterson for Pergande's attention. (Puzzling because the women do not seem annoyed with each other, nor do they try to outdo each other. And also, because they are dressed identically and I have no idea who actually won out.) A cute scene in which Julianne Kepley swoons over a bouquet as she recalls the lover from whom she has received it rounds out the vignettes.

"L'Air d'Esprit" is a gem. It was conceived as a tribute to Olga Spessivtzeva, according to the program notes, which add, "To define Spessivtzeva's dancing may be somewhat baffling, since she did everything with utter ease ... With her seemingly fragile body, she created visions of beauty that touched the soul of the spectator; she could as easily evoke tears as cheers." Clearly a role that requires a certain self-confidence and assuredness, and filled so ably by the spectacular Maia Wilkins. Wilkins is an incredibly expressive dancer. No doubt she has an exquisite line -- I'm not a good judge of technique -- but what I notice is that she can hold her head or her hand just so, just right, so delicately ... and then explode with controlled energy.

The piece itself is kind of a Reader's Digest Condensed Dance; it's the perfect thing for those who like Romantic ballets but find them too long (are you listening, Manhattnik?). Here, we have an opening pas de deux, male and female solos, and a closing pas de deux. Wilkins, garbed in a pink Romantic tutu, looks like the storybook ballerina every little girl dreams of; her partner, Davis Robertson, is the handsome cavalier. The initial pas de deux opens and closes with breathtakingly stunning lifts -- the first with Wilkins lit brightly from the side and Robertson enshrouded in shadow, the second an impossibly lovely move that ends with Wilkins on Robertson's back, with both of their arms outstretched and Wilkins' legs elongated as well. Robertson, who is usually a strong and splendid dancer, partnered Wilkins ably but did not have a good solo. An awkward landing near the beginning either triggered or epitomized his difficulties. Not the performance one might have wished for this stalwart who, I hear, will be leaving the company soon.

Rounding out the program was Suite Saint-Saens. There were many things to like here, but something I noticed particularly was the use of a male corps. I might be wrong, but I don't remember seeing that often.

Now, back to the Gala. It was again an all-Arpino program, and I thought the company simply shone for its very appreciative audience. On the program were "Reflections" (a theme and variations), a preview of "Ruth, Ricordi Per Due" (a pas de deux that will premiere next fall, I think), and the ever-popular "Light Rain". The highlights of "Reflections" were the first variation, danced by an explosive Suzanne Lopez, and the third variation, a lovely, expressive pas de deux danced by Wilkins and Willy Shives. There is a chemistry between these two that makes them a pleasure to watch, and we had a second chance to see them in "Ruth". "Light Rain" was spectacular, from the opening shimmer to the closing one -- energetic, enthusiastic, and tight.

I recall Alexandra praising the company some years back for their careful rehearsal. More recently, an acquaintance mentioned that the company has a collective style -- he characterized it as moving, even breathing together, and mentioned that you could see a sameness in the way dancers run, use their backs, hold their arms ... many things. I think that's true. This company hangs together, and even if they didn't have a collective style, they surely have a collective spirit.

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Thanks for your review Treefrog!

By the way, I have a question: you mentioned Fabrice Calmels as one of the dancers of the company, do you know if he's a former Paris Opera Ballet school student? If I remember correctly, there was a student with that name who had performed in "La Sonnambula" in the school's annual program five years ago, and I had always wondered what he had done later, as he didn't enter the POB.

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I'm pretty sure that Fabrice Calmels is a former Paris Opera Ballet school student.

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Good review, Treefrog.

I just went once, on saturday. Part of I/DNA was unintentionally confusing because a little girl substituted for the young boy. The program notes clarified the situation.

At the start a brief film preview was shown of the Joffrey's upcoming season and a feature on Robert Altman's film "The Company." After "Gosford Park," Altman wanted to do a film about something he knew nothing about. Ballet. The focus appears to be the insular social world of the dancers. Many backstage scenes were shown. It looks promising.

Cliff

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If you went Saturday night, Cliff, I can verify that the youngster was indeed Tony. His hair was grown to nearly chin length, and I can see how that might confuse you (and others). I don't know about the matinee.

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I attended the matinee. Several dancer substitutions were announced before the performance, but I didn't remember the names.

Cliff

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Tony Montalvo did all performances of "I/DNA". Though there were cast changes in other ballets on the program, there were no replacements in "I/DNA".

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