Joffrey Ballet’s “Millennials” drives audience to its feet

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It has become one of the most thrilling rites of the Indian summer season: The Joffrey Ballet’s annual (and all-too-brief) non-subscription engagement at the Auditorium Theatre – a long weekend during which it presents a program of new or rarely revived works that suggest all that is absolutely “now” in the world of ballet, and all that is most striking about this stellar company.

“Millennials,” a must-see collection of two world premieres and a company debut, will run through Sunday only. It is not to be missed. Beyond all else, it is a program emblematic of Joffrey artistic director Ashley Wheater’s fervent wish to have the very finest contemporary choreographers use his dancers as their clay – to mold pieces on them that not only stretch and showcase their talents to the furthest limits, but enable them to put their virtuosic, highly individualistic imprint on these new creations from “the moment of birth.”


Highly recommended

When: Through Sept. 20

Where: Auditorium Theatre,

50 E. Congress

Tickets: $32 – $155

Info: (800) 982-2787;

Run time: 2 hours

with two intermissions

Opening the program like a thunderbolt is the world premiere of Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s “Mammatus” (which takes its name from a cloud formation). A work of pure wow, and true genius, it should become a signature piece of the Joffrey in seasons to come.

Ochoa first came to the attention of Chicago audiences last season when the Scottish Ballet visited with her production of “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Her “Mammatus” is less overtly narrative but no less heatedly theatrical. In a highly original way it plays on the iconography of birds in ballet history (“The Firebird,” “Swan Lake”), but it does so in a way that pays fascinating homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” – with only a flock of wild and ferocious black crows in the picture here. Only in a short, dreamy finale does she introduce a pair of white swans floating aloft in a cloud. Stunning.

Joffrey Ballet dancers Derrick Agnoletti and Anastacia Holden in Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s “Mammatus,” part of the “Millennials” program. (Photo: Cheryl Mann)

Joffrey Ballet dancers Derrick Agnoletti and Anastacia Holden in Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s “Mammatus,” part of the “Millennials” program. (Photo: Cheryl Mann)

The dancing in “Mammatus” is of breakneck difficulty and altogether phenomenal, whether Ochoa is using the full ensemble of 18 feral, breathtakingly strong black birds, or suggesting quite savage relationships in a trio (Cara Marie Gary, Graham Maverick and Lucas Segovia), and a series of duets whose spiraling acrobatic feats of partnering play with centrifugal force. Paired in those duets were the ever superb Fabrice Calmels and powerhouse Anais Bueno (one of several new dancers in the company); Anastacia Holden and Derrick Agnoletti (two veterans, both at their formidable peak); fierce, leggy Anna Gerberich (another newcomer) with the dashing Segovia, and finally, in white, the impossibly lyrical Calmels and Christine Rocas.

Set to Michael Gordon’s haunting “Weather One,” for strings, “Mammatus” features brilliant design work by Dieuweke Van Reu, whose set (ideally lit by Alexander V. Nichols) is pierced by long, angled LED bulbs that suggest lightning, and whose costumes leave the dancers’ muscled thighs bare, but lend their black-clad arms a claw-like effect. The work had the audience on its feet.

The program’s middle piece is “Passengers,” by Myles Thatcher, a 25-year-old dancer and choreographer with the San Francisco Ballet. He takes a quite different approach to narrative, and has set his work to unusually lyrical music by Steve Reich. Thatcher gives us nine characters (and their vintage luggage), as they move frenziedly along the platform of an elegant old train station for which Nichols supplied both the evocative noirish lighting, and a line of Deco-like railway car windows.

A series of fraught relationships unfold (and the Joffrey dancers know how to act), with the beautifully aristocratic Victoria Jaiani in an uneasy quest-and-reject love affair with the elegant Temur Suluashvili; Amber Neumann caught in a triangle in which her husband (the ever-poetic Rory Hohenstein) is clearly more involved with another man (Yoshihisa Arai, a hummingbird-like dancer in top form), than with her. Anastacia Holden plays the girl desperate to hold on to a boyfriend (Alberto Velazquez) determined to call it quits. And newcomer Nicole Ciapponi is a lost girl who intersects with an attendant (Fernando Duarte).

The Joffrey Ballet in Myles Thatcher’s “Passengers.” (Photo: Cheryl Mann)

The Joffrey Ballet in Myles Thatcher’s “Passengers.” (Photo: Cheryl Mann)

Closing the program is the enigmatic and darkly romantic “Fool’s Paradise,” by Christopher Wheeldon, the starry “post-Balanchine era choreographer” who created it for his former company, Morphoses, in 2007. It fits the Joffrey like a glove.

Set to an exquisite score by Jody Talbot (played beautifully by Florentina Ramniceanu, Judy Stone and Grace Kim), its various triangular love relationships, and their subtle mix of ecstasy and anguish, echoe the work’s title (“a state of happiness based on a person’s not knowing about or denying the existence of potential trouble”). And in its mix of the lyrical, and the often fiendishly difficult, it kept calling to mind such Harold Pinter plays as “Betrayal” and “Old Times.” The dancing – by that splendid precisionist April Daly (with Calmels), the liquid Jaiani (with Suluashvili), Rocas (with Hohenstein), as well as Arai, Velazquez and Amanda Assucena – were uniformly extraordinary.

All three choreographers were on hand to take bows with the dancers who realized their work with such artistry.

The Joffrey Ballet in the finale of Christopher Wheeldon’s “Fool’s Paradise.” (Photo: Cheryl Mann)

The Joffrey Ballet in the finale of Christopher Wheeldon’s “Fool’s Paradise.” (Photo: Cheryl Mann)

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