Ballet’s got a rotten reputation. Mention the dance genre and images of tutus and tights, stodgy patrons and anorexic prima donnas, effeminate gents and syrupy sweet music flit through the imagination.
The Joffrey Ballet’s “Russian Masters” defies every one of those stereotypes with the strength of a linebacker plowing through an offensive line.
The performance is a collection of works from three very different Russian choreographers. The first piece is George Balanchine’s “Allegro Brillante”. Set to Tchaikovsky’s unfinished third piano concerto, the dance is more in line with what you’d expect from traditional ballet, especially considering it premiered in 1956. The movements are precise and you can almost see the choreographer’s hands on the strings. It is a masterful, beautiful example of the art form. The composer’s music comes to life with exuberance and an unexpected sensuality.
Next in the program, “Adagio” and “Bells” were choreographed by Yuri Possokhov. A decided departure from Balanchine, these pieces are athletic studies of movement, grace, and strength. “Adagio” featured Victoria Jaiani and Temur Suluashvili. Possokhov choreographed the piece on these two, and it fits on them, and they fit on each other, as closely as their skin-tight costumes. Jaiani is the image of feminine strength, and Suluashvili of masculinity. It evoked a visceral response and a standing ovation.
“Bells” is a series of piano compositions by Sergei Rachmaninoff. Its choreography includes traditional ballet movements as well as folk dance elements. One aspect that characterizes Possokhov’s work is the complex pairings. If the women weren’t so strong you’d think the men were shaping them like putty, but you can see every muscle as it expands and contracts to find the perfect position. There is no story line for “Bells”, but the dancers are evocative enough that you feel as if you are following tales of love and loss.
The performance closed with “Le Sacre du Printemps”. If Possokhov is merely a departure from traditional ballet, Vaslav Nijinsky’s dance is the polar opposite. When it premiered in Paris in 1913, one hundred years ago, it caused riots. In a short film shown before the performance, Milicent Hodson told of ladies sticking each other with hat pins and of the crowd hissing.
The reaction is understandable. Patrons expected to see a lovely performance. Instead, they saw and heard a riotous exhibition of a tribal sacrifice. The world wasn’t ready for it yet, and it closed after only eight performances. While the music remained and became part of the orchestral repertoire the choreography was considered lost until the 1970s. That’s when Hodson began excavating until she, with the help of Robert Joffrey and historian Kenneth Archer, was able to reconstruct the seminal work.
There are no sweeping lines, graceful turns, or pas de deux in Le Sacre du Printemps. Instead there are feet stomping and angular poses. The Chosen One, performed by Joanna Wozniak, jumps into the air as if on tightly-wound springs. The female dancers whip their heads, slashing the air with long, thin braids. It is both a cacophony of sound and sight. It is spectacular.
That, in a word, describes “Russian Masters”. It is a brilliantly curated collection of works representing these amazing choreographers and composers. What is also spectacularly impressive is the way the cast of the Joffrey Ballet delivers these works. They skillfully translate the nuances of each and are able to switch from traditional to contemporary to groundbreaking in one night. The audience was vocally appreciative, with shouts and calls and murmers of “wow”, “beautiful”, “breathtaking” and “I’ve never seen anything like it.
“Russian Masters” is on stage this weekend only and tickets are nearly sold out for Saturday and Sunday. If you’ve got other plans, cancel them.
Photos courtesy of The Joffrey Ballet