Victoria Jaiani (as the Princess) is held aloft by Fabrice Calmels (as the Samurai) in Yuri Possokhov’s “RAkU,” a ballet based on a true story from Japan, now in its Joffrey Ballet debut at the Auditorium Theatre. (Photo: Cheryl Mann)
‘Stories in Motion,” the Joffrey Ballet’s program of three breathtaking works of total dance theater, is on stage at the Auditorium Theatre through Sunday only, and if you fail to catch this all-too-brief engagement you are making a big mistake.
The ideally paired ballets, performed with breathtaking skill and passion, include George Balanchine’s “The Prodigal Son” (created in 1929, but radical in its modernism even now), Antony Tudor’s “The Lilac Garden” (an anguished romance in feverish Edwardian style, from 1936), and Yuri Possokhov’s “RAkU” (a multimedia stunner created in 2011, and based on a true story from Japan). Each of the ballets is accompanied by live music — with the the superb Chicago Philharmonic Orchestra led by Scott Speck — which brings a third dimension to every moment. Each work also is enhanced by museum quality design.
“The Prodigal Son,” set to the music of Prokofiev, and with vivid painted backdrops and set pieces by Georges Rouault, the early 20th century French expressionist, spins the familiar biblical story of a young man who rejects his father, heads out into the world, experiences the most alluring and dangerous aspects of life, and finally comes crawling back home, begging forgiveness. The magic here is the way it all unfolds with choreography that is alternately realistic, audaciously acrobatic and wonderfully grotesque, with a long refectory table employed as a most ingenious “second” stage.
At Thursday night’s opening, the Prodigal Son was movingly danced by Alberto Velazquez (taller, but as darkly handsome and muscular as the young Edward Villella, the fabled dancer who made the role his trademark, and coached this production), with Christine Rocas in a fabulously strong and sexy turn as The Siren, who boldly initiates him into the world of erotic love. These two were expertly backed by Derrick Agnoletti and Rory Hohenstein as the Prodigal’s pugnacious servants, with an ensemble of nine madmen (Yoshihisa Arai, Artur Babajanyan, Edson Barbosa, Guillaume Basso, Raul Cassola, Eliveton da Gracas, Fernando Duarte, Graham Maverick and Lucas Segovia) as the corrupt and thuggish “drinking companions.” The Joffrey’s artistic director, Ashley Wheater, delivered a finely etched cameo as the classic Old Testament father.
Tudor’s dramatically different “Lilac Garden,” set to the achingly lovely music of Ernest Chausson (featuring violinist David Perry), feels like an Edwardian short story penned by Virginia Woolf. It spins the tale of Caroline (Victoria Jaiani), who is engaged to marry a young officer she does not love (Miguel Angel Blanco), and who seizes every possible opportunity to spend a few precious moments with the man she adores (Dylan Gutierrez). That man is with another exceptionally elegant woman (the striking April Daly), the ex-lover of Caroline’s groom-to-be. Though awash in rapturous, lyrical dancing, it is the darting, nervous gestures of these unhappily matched people — too proper and constrained to be caught in any impropriety — that creates the underlying tension here. And the Joffrey cast captured every nervous embrace and longing glance.
With its fearsomely difficult dancing and visually ravishing environment, Possokhov’s “RAku” is a stunner, pure and simple. And in some ways it brings the program full circle with a 21st century twist on Balanchine’s ballet in its use of exoticism and non-traditional, often acrobatic movement. Its gasp-inducing lifts also suggest the vestiges of Possokhov’s early career with the Bolshoi Ballet, though he uses total stillness to potent effect here as well.
Possokhov has based “RAkU” on a true story that occurred in 1950s Japan, when a young, mentally ill monk burned down Kyoto’s glorious Golden Pavilion. But he has transposed the tale to an earlier era, spinning the story of the love affair between a Princess (Jaiani), and a Samurai (Fabrice Calmels, and of the terrible act of the insanely jealous Monk (Temur Suluashvili) who covets her.
The score, by Shinji Eshima, is a seductive blend of East and West, with gongs, woodblocks and a sequence of live chanting by Ancient Dragon Zen Gate. Alexander Nichols’ spectacular, architecturally ingenious set features a series of bare wood boxes onto which photographs of the temple ruins, as well as cherry blossoms, cranes and flames are projected, creating a cinematic quality much like that in last season’s “Romeo and Juliet,” and Mark Zappone’s costumes echo the origami-like geometry of the movement.
The fiendishly difficult choreography has clearly set the dancers on fire. The grandly dramatic Jaiani (back in knockout form after giving birth to a son), and Calmels, whose towering form and elegance are naturally commanding, made pure poetry of their pas de deux. And Suluashvili (Jaiani’s real-life husband) was a brilliant stalker as the Monk, whose encounters with Jaiani were chilling. A sequence in which Jaiani is tossed in the air holding a sword is beyond terrifying, executed with heart-stopping daring in the company of four warriors (Barbosa, Maverick, Adam Adamczyk and Adam Smyth), whose dancing of richly stylized variations intriguingly echoed the drinkers in “Prodigal Son.”
The audience at the Auditorium was on its feet cheering by the end of “RAku.” The complete program should be brought back for a longer run as soon as possible.
Christine Rocas is The Siren, and Alberto Velazquez is the Prodigal Son, in the Joffrey Ballet production of George Balanchine’s “The Prodigal Son,” at the Auditorium Theatre through Sept. 21. (Photo: Cheryl Mann)