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Sneakers, tank tops, jeans punctuate fast-paced mixed-rep from the Joffrey Ballet

These shorter creations take the focus off showy sets and big narratives and put it squarely on Joffrey’s first-rate dancers.

Joffrey Ballet artist Edson Barbosa and the ensemble perform in “The Times Are Racing.”
Joffrey Ballet artist Edson Barbosa and the ensemble perform in “The Times Are Racing.”
Cheryl Mann

With a pulsing, electro-percussive soundtrack, often colliding patterns and lightning shifts from fast action to stop motion to slow motion, Justin Peck’s “The Times Are Racing” more than lives up to its title.

The hip, high-voltage work featuring an eye-popping 20 dancers in sneakers and street clothes is the perfect culmination to an electric Joffrey Ballet program of five works that opened Wednesday and runs through Feb. 23 at the Auditorium Theatre.

Put simply, it is a long way from swans and tutus, and that’s point. Sure, evening-length story ballets have much to offer, but these shorter creations take the focus off showy sets and big narratives and put it squarely on Joffrey’s first-rate dancers and their virtuosic moves.

Peck, 32, was named resident choreographer of the New York Ballet in 2014, and he has to be considered among ballet’s top dancemakers today. And as this 2017 ballet makes clear, one of his strengths is plugging into the contemporary zeitgeist.

He smartly fuses elements of ballet, modern dance and even soft shoe, not to mention the obvious influences of hip-hop even if there are not necessarily any explicit moves from that style.

While the explosive ensemble sections are the biggest attention grabbers, the Joffrey’s first performance of the ballet also includes kinetic solos by Edson Barbosa (a recurring star of the evening) and an extended, intricate duet featuring Jeraldine Mendoza and Dylan Guttierez.

It all adds up to near sensory overload for the audience and what must be a stamina-challenging test for the dancers. Who could be surprised, then, that the ballet culminates with all of them dramatically collapsing on the floor?

Mixed-repertory programs need variety to succeed, and Joffrey’s artistic director, Ashley Wheater provides just that, balancing high-flying ensemble works with two ballet miniatures and making sure there are a few laughs along the way.

The Joffrey Ballet’s Temur Suluashvili and Fernando Duarte perform in “The Sofa.”
The Joffrey Ballet’s Temur Suluashvili and Fernando Duarte perform in “The Sofa.”
Cheryl Mann

Indeed, it just might be the smaller works by Israeli choreographer Itzik Galili that steal the show, starting with “Mono Lisa” (2003), a sleek duet featuring Victoria Jaiani, one of the company’s veteran stars, and Stefan Goncalvez, who proves to be a worthy counterpart.

It opens with a striking sight — rows of white stage lights hovering several feet above the stage. (Galili also served as the lighting designer for both works.) They begin to rise as the two dancers make their entrance, finally taking their place overheard with a hint of fog ensuring that their beams were all faintly outlined.

The highly athletic partnering includes a lift in which Jaiani has her legs spread-eagled upward in a V shape and another cantilevered lift in which Goncalvez seems to defy physics when he uses just one of her legs as a kind of lever.

But along with the physical intensity, there is a kind of breeziness about this performance as each dancer sometimes walks casually or stops and just watches the other as though the whole thing is being improvised on the spot to the soundtrack of percussive sound effects.

Galili’s other offering, “The Sofa” (1995), which also lasts around five minutes, provides a different and very welcome comedic touch. As the growly recorded voice of Tom Waits croons, a couple on a bright yellow sofa (Temur Suluashvili and Anna Gerberich) are engaged in a tussle that begins innocently with an arm around her shoulders being pushed away and turns into a full-fledged brawl. But the slapstick violence is all in good fun.

Adding another wrinkle, the sofa is turned over backwards and when it is righted, Suluashvili suddenly finds himself pursued by Fernando Duarte, who is dressed in red-velvet pants and a mostly unzipped black jacket. The two perform all the same moves the audience has just seen, with the roles reversed and the sexual dynamics different, generating a whole new series of laughs.

The remaining two works on the program premiered in May 2019 as part of the subscription series of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and were performed in Orchestra Hall with the musicians onstage. But it is like seeing them almost totally anew this time around, because on the Auditorium Theatre stage they have proper lighting and adequate space, not to mention a place to hang Ruben Toledo’s playful backdrop for “Commedia” (2008), the evening’s opener.

Christopher Wheeldon’s well-constructed, commedia dell’arte-inspired work for eight dancers has a sprightly, mannered feel with turned-in knees, crooked arms and flexed wrists. And in “Bliss!” Chicago choreographer Stephanie Martinez more than holds her own with the big-name dance creators on the program.

Kyle MacMillan is a local freelance writer.