The Joffrey Ballet journeys ‘Across the Pond’ for showcase of rising talents

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April Daly and Fabrice Calmels (foreground), with Valentino Moneglia Zamora (from left), Brooke Linford, Xavier Nunez and Leticia Stock in the Joffrey Ballet presentation of “Yonder Blue,” one of three non-narrative works featured in “Across the Pond.” | Cheryl Mann

Since moving to Chicago in 1995 and establishing itself as a resident company, the Joffrey Ballet has put increasing emphasis on full-length story ballets like “Anna Karenina” and the others that have earlier filled out its 2018-19 season.

But in its latest offering, “Across the Pond,” which opened Wednesday evening at the Auditorium Theatre and runs for nine more performances through May 5, the company returns to its mixed-repertory roots, presenting a program of three shorter, mostly non-narrative works.

The Joffrey Ballet: ‘Across the Pond’ ★★★ When: Through May 5 Where: Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Ida B. Wells Dr. Tickets: $35-$179 Info: joffrey.org

Featured are all fresh pieces, including two world premieres, by three young, well-regarded English choreographers. All are men like the composers whose music is employed, a choice that seems a bit surprising and short-sighted given the understandable attention right now to gender equity throughout the arts and across society.

That said, there is considerable diversity among these three creators. Indeed, quick labels for these pieces, which run from 26 to 33 minutes, might be: cool elegance, sensual mysteriousness and assertive isolation.

Each choreographer shows himself to a have a well-formed vision and sense of craftsmanship, even if none of the works come off as instant classics. Joffrey deserves credit for taking some creative risks here and providing a platform to these rising talents, something that is essential if ballet is to be kept alive and vital.

“Across the Pond” opens with the world premiere of Andrew McNicol’s “Yonder Blue” for 16 dancers, which, though the most understated of the three, might be the most memorable. It is set to an entrancing minimalist score with electronic overtones by Peter Gregson, a cellist who recently recorded an album reinterpreting Bach’s cello suites.

Fernando Duarte and the ensemble of “HOME,” presented by the Joffrey Ballet in “Across the Pond.” | Cheryl Mann

Fernando Duarte and the ensemble of “HOME,” presented by the Joffrey Ballet in “Across the Pond.” | Cheryl Mann

There is nothing radical here. McNicol hews to classical ballet with only minor variations, like a set of lifts undertaken with the dancers’ backs to the audience or the man dancing around the woman. The emphasis is on well-etched lines and sculptural combinations, all done with a coolly mannered, manicured feel.

The dancing takes place in a box-like space, tightly defined by blank drop panels at the back and on the sides of the stage that are subtly animated by lighting scenic designer Jack Mehler, with soft hues of blue and tan and wafting fog at times to create handsome, cloud-like effects.

Mystery and shadow pervade Liam Scarlett’s “Vespertine,” a title that means referring to or occurring in the evening. Thirteen usually partly lit chandeliers – clusters of clear, incandescent bulbs – provide the main scenic effect, with dancers emerging from and retiring into the pervasive darkness at the back of the stage.

The score opens with disorienting, discordant chords from boundary-bending violinist Bjarte Eike before settling into the more venerable sounds of such Renaissance and baroque composers as John Dowland and Arcangelo Corelli.

This juxtaposition between old and new is a constant theme in this work for 12 dancers (including the wonderful lead couple, Victoria Jaiani and Alberto Velazquez), which the Norwegian Ballet debuted in 2013. It even carries over to the dual sets of costumes, which Scarlett designed as well.

“Vespertine’ is danced by the Joffrey Ballet at the Auditorium Theatre on Wednesday, April 24, 2019. | Cheryl Mann

“Vespertine’ is danced by the Joffrey Ballet at the Auditorium Theatre on Wednesday, April 24, 2019. | Cheryl Mann

Providing a historical feel are long red dresses for the women and red knickers and long coats for the men, but the past seems to become present as dancers shed them for pale-colored briefs and leotards. Indeed, these outer garments are repeatedly removed and put back on for reasons that are unclear.

Courtliness and classical ballet are very much the foundation of “Vespertine,” but Scarlett disrupts expectations with asymmetrical arrangements of dancers, the defiance of customs like having the man weave in and out of three women and the use of the long dresses as almost props as the women swirl and manipulate them.

Rounding out the program is the hip-hop-tinged world premiere of “HOME” by Andrea Walker, who has worked with such musical artists as Coldplay and Brazilian rapper Aggro Santos. Sharp-edged, strobe-like movements match Ross Allchurch’s aggressive, hard-driving electronic score.

The piece for 20 dancers deals with immigration and isolation, with one slumping, sometimes writhing figure (the hauntingly effective Fernando Duarte) always the outsider as he is ignored or shoved aside by the community, which marches in machine-like synchrony. He briefly connects romantically with another man (Fabrice Calmels) but it doesn’t last.

“HOME” opens and closes with the sound of children reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, and the hand held to the heart is a recurring choreographic motif, but, notably, the outsider’s hands begin at his sides and end at his sides.

Kyle MacMillan is a local freelance writer.

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