Swap the millennial, steampunk vibe for bell-bottoms and tie-dye, the electronic music for Bob Dylan, and Justin Peck’s The Times Are Racing (2017) could have easily been a real-life happening on UC Berkeley’s campus in the 1960s. Framed by a pulsing Dan Deacon score, the ensemble work, danced by twenty artists of The Joffrey Ballet, was filled with an undeniable passion for change, collective energy and charged urgency. One can only imagine that same powerful atmosphere unfolding fifty years ago at Berkeley’s Sather Gate – just steps away from where we currently sat.
Cheering each other on in solo moments, assembling and reassembling in cluster formations, their arms expanding into the air as they breathed together, Times manifested teamwork and camaraderie in every second. As solos morphed into quartets, trios into full cast statements, a repeating trope felt like a call to action. Gently, but with conviction, dancers would tap the soles of each other’s sneakers (not a pointe shoe in sight in this work) as if to say, “let’s go, right now, together.” A lengthy duet pairing vibrant movement with percussive soft shoe tap also spoke of that togetherness with its incredible unison. Additionally, striking moments of stillness found the cast reflecting on what was the right path to take. Deacon’s pulsating score definitely fits in with what Peck was trying to convey, though it was also unvaried and repetitive. And not every member of the company was able to morph from classical ballet into Peck’s more contemporary movement style. In any event, it was a remarkable piece to witness, particularly in the light of where we were.
Led by Artistic Director Ashley Wheater, the Joffrey is in the middle of a multi-year artistic exchange with Cal Performances – a six-year conversation that began during the 2017-2018 season. Each time the company journeys from Chicago to the UC campus they engage in a mini-residency of lectures and classes, incubate new commissions and of course, present a series of performances. Friday night, they brought a program of four diverse works. Peck’s Times was a hit as was Christopher Wheeldon’s Commedia. The other two works weren’t misses per se, though in each case, there was one element that seemed to get in the way of the choreography.
In Stephanie Martinez’ 2019 Bliss!, that element was contrast. Generally a positive when it comes to dance, here, the contrast read somewhat strangely. Having said that, Bliss! started out with a bang. Clad in steel gray pants, six men burst onto the stage with the utmost fire and spark. Huge jumps, leaping turns, giant postures and extreme epaulement burst out. And each time they returned to the abstract work’s vignettes, they captivated with technique and artistry – the intense spirit reminiscent of really good, dance-focused musical theater. Then, as two women joined, costumed in sparkly figure skating-inspired costumes, things shifted. Injecting clean, classical steps and demure overtones, they began engaging with the rest of the cast, and that’s where I lost connection with Bliss!. There was contrast, no question. And the dancing by all eight was phenomenal. But it felt like two different ideas were just existing in the same place. The potent, dramatic variations for the men in Bliss! were plenty strong, and visually interesting, on their own.
In Nicolas Blanc’s Beyond the Shore (2018), a Cal Performances co-commission created during this current partnership, the challenge was the music. Every chapter in the conceptual piece was intriguing; however, the music was so piercing and so loud that it was tough to concentrate on what was happening onstage. Perhaps the volume (as controlled in the booth) of Mason Bates’ score was set too high or maybe the timbre and pitch was too much for my ears. Hard to tell. Choreographically, though, the piece was quite good. As relayed by Blanc in the program, “each movement inhabits a new environment.” In that regard, mission accomplished. Shore’s opening sequence communicated a mystical, oceanic quality with atmospheric smoke, filmy costumes (by Katrin Schnabl) and matching movements. Bodies rose and fell likes waves, hands rippled through the air, feet softly boureéd backwards in parallel. Subsequent sections offered differing dynamics and moods – frenetic spinning and twirling in one; harsh, angular limbs in another; a pas de deux of swimming legs; robotic, mechanized motions as the work came to a close.
Wheeldon’s Commedia was a delightful addition to the Joffrey program (a substitution for an initially planned Liam Scarlett work). And I liked the 2008 piece a lot, more than I thought I would. It surprised me. Unfolding in multiple group divertissements, solos, duets and trios, Commedia looks to the commedia dell-arte genre and its characters, like the Harlequin or Jester. As the curtain went up to reveal an octet in masks, capes and geometric unitards (Isabel Toledo’s costume design), I was sure that a tongue-in-cheek, campy ride was to follow. But Commedia was something different entirely. Instead, not only was it a celebration of this historic form, but also, an exploration of how it might still actively converse with today’s ballet vocabulary. Flexion of feet, hands and wrists met with grand jetés; classical pas de deux syntax was infused with pointed fingers, subtle head tilts and bent knees on half-toe. While Commedia dragged a bit in the middle, the Joffrey dancers gave every moment their all, as they did in every choreographic selection on this quadruple bill.