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Too many chills but many thrills as Joffrey gets hip

"Infra" by the Joffrey Ballet. Christine Rocas and Lucas Segovia.

In the brief video curtain-raiser for the Joffrey Ballet’s ferociously danced “Winter Fire” program, now at the Auditorium Theatre, artistic director Ashley Wheater explains that the three works being performed under this umbrella title are part of his effort “to bring the company’s repertoire into the 21st century.”

This they certainly do – spiky abstraction, hard-edged alienation, angularity, deconstructed classical vocabulary and all. True, you might feel a bit of a chill at times, but things gradually heat up, and the overall impact is invariably thrilling and often surprising.

As it happens, the initial piece on the program – “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated,” by the American-bred, German-based choreographer William Forsythe – was created in 1987, and ushered in an era that might be dubbed “ballet brute.” Set to an alternately percussive and astringent electronic score by Thom Willems, with industrial lighting that sometimes keeps the dancers (frustratingly) in the semi-dark, it takes classical moves to the extreme (leg extensions that go way past the 180-degree mark, deeply athletic plies). It also cracks open certain elements of traditional partnering and echoes the ensemble patterns of 19th century ballet by turning what might have been a line of swans into a disaffected column of steely, sexually taut, emotionally disconnected (or angry) singles. The six woman and three men – led by Victoria Jaiani, Christine Rocas and the exceptional Rory Hohenstein – did everything to bravura effect on Friday evening. But there is something frostbitten about this very 1980s-style piece.

British-bred choreographer Christopher Wheeldon (so in demand he probably lives in an international airport) is a far more romantic artist, and though his ballets can be abstract, they thrive on emotional intimacy. “After the Rain” (from 2005) is an altogether rapturous piece set to heartwrenchingly beautiful music by Arvo Part (played live, which makes all the difference) that begins with a loosely synchronous section for three couples in dove gray costumes: Rocas and Temur Suluashvili, Yumelia Garcia and Lucas Segovia and April Daly and Hohenstein. Their complex, elegant moves clearly pay homage to Balanchine yet also are marked by Wheeldon’s distinctively dreamy vision. The work’s second half, a duet, is an impossibly delicate expression of total rapture. And on Friday it was danced to ravishing effect by Rocas, a tiny, exquisite beauty (in soft shoes, bare legs and pale pink leotard), who was ideally partnered by the intense, supremely attentive Suluashvili.

The climactic work is “Infra,” created in 2008 by Wayne McGregor, resident choreographer of Britain’s Royal Ballet, and loosely inspired by urban life in the age of terrorism. Set to a haunting Max Richter score that blends live music and electronic sounds, it features a stunning overhead LED panel running the length of the stage onto which artist Julian Opie’s haunting animations of ordinary people are set walking. This creates a fascinating counterpoint between the mechanics of anonymous “virtual” pedestrians and the intimacy of live bodies who are seen in various combinations and couplings below.

“Infra,” brilliantly danced by an ensemble of 12 (and, at one galvanic moment, by a crowd), gathers its emotional power slowly. Among the standouts Friday were Neumann, a young dancer who truly blossomed in this piece with her warmth and natural expressiveness, and Jaiani, whose flexibility, strength and daring know no bounds.

Winter Fire, indeed.