The question that drives “Game Changers,” the Joffrey Ballet’s alternately dreamy, mysterious, playful and altogether sensationally danced trip bill now being performed at the Auditorium Theatre is this: How do you preserve and expand the essential technique and vocabulary of ballet, that most beautiful but tradition-bound art form, while at the same time leaping into the 21st century and, at least on some level, differentiating your work from that of modern dance companies?

JOFFREY BALLET IN ‘GAME CHANGERS’
Highly recommended
When: Through Feb. 26
Where: Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress
Tickets: $34 – $159
Info: www.joffrey.org
Run time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, with two intermission

It is an exceptionally tricky challenge, and while contemporary art of all kinds is rooted in the notion that labels no longer apply (and that the more border-crossing the better), both the artists and their audiences have certain expectations. Is ballet simply defined by work in pointe shoes? Is it a matter of using a particular lexicon of steps? Is it about the essential line of a body trained in the most rigorous ballet technique?

Each of the three pieces on the Joffrey program — Christopher Wheeldon’s “Fool’s Paradise,” Wayne McGregor’s “INFRA,” and Justin Peck’s “Year of the Rabbit” — approaches the challenge of “changing the game” in a different way. And the Joffrey dancers, who are able to combine breathtaking perfectionism with impressive individualism, rise to the formidable demands of each work.

“Fool’s Paradise,” the opening piece on the program, taps into a richly poetic spirit with both its lushly sculptural movement and its alchemical design (showers of silvery gold leaves, magically lit). Set to a lyrical modern score by Joby Talbot (expertly rendered by pianist  Grace Kim, violinist Florentina Ramniceanu and cellist Judy Stone), it unfolds in a series of intricately devised trios and duets — sometimes on an empty stage, but at times set against the golden light capturing the falling leaves. The movement (with its many difficult serpentine lifts and intertwinings) often feels like the Italian neo-classical marble sculptures of Antonio Canova have sprung to life, with the flesh-toned leotards suggesting the dancers are all but nude.

The gorgeous dancing of Victoria Jaiani, Temur Suluashvili, April Daly, Fabrice Calmels, Christine Rocas, Rory Hohenstein, Amanda Assucena, Fernando Duarte and Edson Barbosa is noteworthy for its synthesis of precision-tooled control and fluidity, with a final sculptural frieze that is nothing short of breathtaking. It is worth recalling that a “fool’s paradise” is defined as “a state of happiness based on a person’s not knowing about or denying the existence of potential trouble.”

Rory Hohenstein (from left), Temur Suluashvili and Victoria Jaiani in Christopher Wheeldon's "Fool's Paradise." (Photo: Cheryl Mann)

Rory Hohenstein (from left), Temur Suluashvili and Victoria Jaiani in Christopher Wheeldon’s “Fool’s Paradise.” (Photo: Cheryl Mann)

British choreographer McGregor created “INFRA” (first performed by the Joffrey in 2012) in the wake of the 2005 terrorist bombings of public transportation in London, although this sense of the ordinary and the feverishly emotional aspects of daily life is pure subtext.

“INFRA” operates on two clearly separated levels, with the dancers on the stage floor, and a narrow strip of an LED screen creating a “bridge” that runs the width of the stage high above them. It is across this electronic walkway that artist Julian Opie sends a routine parade of robotic-like white digitized pedestrians who, unlike the dancers below, never interact. But against the elegiac, subtly electronically enhanced score of Max Richter (played live by a sextet of strings and piano), a dozen dancers suggest a slew of relationships, sometimes intensely intimate, sometimes anguished and fraught, and always with movement that is extreme, angular, twisted, agitated and difficult.

There is ravishing dancing by Anastacia Holden, Jeraldine Mendoza, Nicole Ciapponi, Hansol Jeong, Yoshihisa Arai, Alberto Velazquez, Derrick Agnoletti, Rocas, Jaiani, Suluashvili and Hohenstein, with Assucena bringing her uncanny naturalness to every move. At one point six couples perform intricate duets in six parallel squares of light. At another stunningly dramatic moment a crowd of real people in street clothes moves purposefully across the stage.

Peck, who created “Year of the Rabbit” (set to Michael P. Atkinson’s orchestration of an electronica album by singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens that is played live), is the 29-year-old dancer and choreographer from the New York City Ballet who is unquestionably the “game changer” most clearly spinning off the work of that mid-20th century game changer, George Balanchine. If Balanchine took the formations found in 19th century classical ballet, set them to high-speed, and introduced far more jagged edges, Peck ups the ante with his endlessly ingenious, playful, continually ingenious and complex patterns. He also has a gift for telling a story without a plot by combining technical virtuosity and speed with a mischievous suggestion of the dancers’ personalities. And he is not afraid to use the floor.

There are moments when so much is going at once in “Year of the Rabbit” that you wonder how the ingenious Peck will resolve the stage picture, but invariably he does. As for the cast of 18 Joffrey dancers — it is something to behold.

The Joffrey Ballet's Yoshihisa Arai flies high in Justin Peck's "Year of the Rabbit." (Photo: Cheryl Mann)

The Joffrey Ballet’s Yoshihisa Arai flies high in Justin Peck’s “Year of the Rabbit.” (Photo: Cheryl Mann)