Joffrey Ballet’s ‘Global Visionaries’ program saves best for last

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Victoria Jaiani and Yoshihisa Arai in “The Miraculous Mandarin,” one of three works on the Joffrey Ballet’s “Global Visionaries” program at the Auditorium Theatre. | Cheryl Mann

The umbrella title for the Joffrey Ballet’s spring engagement at the Auditorium Theatre is “Global Visionaries,” and the international aspect of that title is certainly apt. The program features the work of three choreographers — from Russia by way of the San Francisco Ballet (Yuri Possokhov), Sweden (Alexander Ekman) and both Colombia and Belgium (Annabelle Lopez Ochoa).

A more precise description of the program might be: one work of highly sexualized dance-theater (Possokhov’s “The Miraculous Mandarin”), one performance-art piece in something of a 1960s mode that only ballet-trained dancers could perform (Ekman’s “Joy,” originally titled “Episode 47”) and one fiendishly difficult contemporary ballet with elements of high theatricality (Lopez Ochoa’s “Mammatus”).

‘GLOBAL VISIONARIES’ Recommended When: Through May 7 Where: Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress Tickets: $34-$159 Info: (312) 386-8905; Run time: 2 hours and 15 minutes with one intermission

The dancing throughout this program is superb and offers audiences a welcome glimpse of the ranks of the full ensemble. Choreographically, however, there are questions to be asked.

Possokhov’s “The Miraculous Mandarin” — among whose best features is that the Chicago Philharmonic, led by Scott Speck, is onstage playing Bela Bartok’s stringent score — is a brilliant showcase for two of the company’s stars: Victoria Jaiani and Yoshihisa Arai.

This 1919 “ballet-pantomime” was written by Bartok in the wake of the horrors of World War I and is a study in human depravity on the personal level. Based on the work of Hungarian playwright Menyhért Lengyel, it tells a kinky, tabloid-esque tale of prostitution, theft and murder in which three thugs use a beautiful woman (here ensconced in something of a glass-and-metal cage) to seduce men, whom they proceed to terrorize and rob.

The first “victim” is a somewhat smarmy middle-aged man with glasses (Miguel Angel Blanco). The second is a shy, gentle, handsome fellow (Temur Suluashvili) who flees the gang’s attack. The third is The Mandarin (Arai), an elegant, supremely controlled man in a peacock-blue suit who becomes profoundly enthralled by The Woman (Jaiani).

Whether she is repelled, puzzled or fascinated by The Mandarin is difficult to detect. Suffice to say he is brutally tortured and ultimately hung by a noose, yet he refuses to die. The Woman stands by and does nothing, and Possokhov’s choreography fails to make it clear whether her single attempt to reach out to him is what enables him to let go.

Jaiani, an uncannily stunning woman and superb dancer (whose long, leggy figure is celebrated in Mark Zappone’s leather-and-chiffon costume), could not be a cooler or crueler seductress. Arai, a superb dancer and actor, is first-rate in his solo work, if at times a somewhat nervous partner. But Possokhov shows himself to be more  shockmeister than visionary in this ballet.

A parade of the Joffrey Ballet’s flamingo-like female dancers in Alexander Ekman’s “Joy,” part of the “Global Visionaries” program at the Auditorium Theatre. | Cheryl Mann

A parade of the Joffrey Ballet’s flamingo-like female dancers in Alexander Ekman’s “Joy,” part of the “Global Visionaries” program at the Auditorium Theatre. | Cheryl Mann

Ekman’s world premiere “Joy” is fun for the first 10 minutes or so but can’t sustain real interest, even if his earlier piece, the absurdist  “Episode 31,” managed to do this. Here, again, the dancers seem to be improvising at times (though they are not), as a young man waters a tree, and as a taped voice (I paraphrase) asks such questions as: Can we create joy? Are the dancers really feeling it, or faking it? Is this what the audience came for? And aren’t those beige jackets they’re wearing kind of bulky?

At that point, the large ensemble strips down to flesh-colored shorts and bras, and, if nothing else, the beautiful, ideally muscled bodies of both the men and women in the company are on full display.

A section in which the women liberate themselves from their pointe shoes turns into the work’s single loveliest sequence as all the female dancers then lace up again and parade on pointe in a long curving line. Another sequence, in which both the men and women jump and cavort in beige patent leather heels, is far less than entertaining. As for the young man so in love with his tree, he also finds joy in birdsong and at one point is lifted aloft by the group, eventually holding a “happy face” balloon that then flies off into the rafters, leaving him more than sad.

Enough said, aside from the fact that the score had its appeal (a mix of the Brad Meldau Trio, Django Django, Tiga and Moby), and the opening night audience seemed delighted by all the hijinks, even if I was not.

The best work came last because Lopez Ochoa is the real thing — a visionary choreographer who knows how to blend classical technique and modern angles, create dramatic tension through a mix of speed and slowed motion, deploy a large group in opposition to a trio and a series of duets and create a true sense of dynamism and mystery.

“Mammatus,” which takes its name from a cloud formation, is far more about the patterns and mating rituals of what might be a flock of giant blackbirds, with all the dancers in black leotards and black, arm-length gloves. The initial trio was expertly danced by Cara Marie Gary, Fernando Duarte and Graham Maverick, with power performances by Duet 1 (Anais Bueno and Fabrice Calmels), Duet 2 (Anastacia Holden and Derrick Agnoletti) and Duet 3 (Christine Rocas and Rory Hohenstein, notable for the way they peck at each other). Up among the clouds for a final duet (in white) were Jaiani and Dylan Gutierrez.

“Mammatus” is not “Swan Lake” or “Firebird,” but it’s a fine ballet bird of a different feather and the only real “keeper” on this program.

Anais Bueno and Fabrice Calmels in a duet from Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s “Mammatus.” | Cheryl Mann

Anais Bueno and Fabrice Calmels in a duet from Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s “Mammatus.” | Cheryl Mann

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