at the Civic Center for Performing Arts

May 17-20

Chicago is a pretty gritty town–an incubator for the blues, not the ballet. But under the artistic direction of Daniel Duell, Ballet Chicago has just presented its third season in eight months, and that alone is a significant accomplishment. Duell hasn’t succeeded in creating a world-class ballet company in Chicago yet, but there’s still reason to hope. Ballet Chicago is gradually acquiring an idiosyncratic, eclectic repertory: dances by Balanchine, Duell, Peter Martins, and a number of lesser-known choreographers–Diane Coburn Bruning, Gerard Charles, Lisa de Ribere, and Stuart Sebastian. They may yet acquire a consistent, pleasing company style and emerge as an ensemble of uniformly competent, musical dancers. So far they haven’t.

Martins’s Calcium Light Night, danced by Petra Adelfang and Manard Stewart, is as peculiar, angular, and pleasing as its Ives score. The brightly lit, stripped stage, with its great hanging fluorescent square, emphasizes the ordinariness of the dancers’ simple, uninflected walking between sections. But the dance–and Adelfang’s and Stewart’s dancing–is anything but ordinary.

Just as the score strikes an idea and enlarges upon it, so does the movement–a jump reaches higher with each repetition, a leg gesture expands. One of Stewart’s solos juxtaposes careful bourrees with a softened, relaxed upper body; in another, sharp battements pull and distort the line of the torso. Adelfang sidles along with one flexed foot crossing in front of the other, a motif Stewart had explored in the first four sections; when she repeats his steps on pointe, they’re sharper, queerer, more fascinating. The two duets that close Calcium Light Night veer off in another direction, knitting and separating the two bodies in movements that suggest writing on a blackboard or playing leapfrog, and in shapes that evoke a seesaw or the handle of an old-fashioned pump.

In Calcium Light Night, the performance is so meticulous, so internalized, that Adelfang and Stewart almost disappear; we focus–as they do–on the movement and the music and nothing else. But in the pas de deux from Balanchine’s Stars and Stripes, Adelfang’s dancing struck me as almost mechanically precise, Stewart’s as excessively ingratiating. Their partnership in Calcium Light Night places both dancers on a more interesting middle ground.

Partnership is what animates the season’s world premiere, Duell’s Glazounov Violin Concerto. One partnership is that between the music and the movement: sometimes the two work in harmony, sometimes in tension, sometimes in anticipation. (The musicality and spatial complexity of Duell’s choreography owe much to Balanchine: Duell danced with New York City Ballet for 15 years.) Moments of near-magic erupt when Joseph Malbrough’s characteristic ease and conviction seize Sherry Moray too; but the Glazounov Violin Concerto remains largely lifeless–it’s lovely costumes, patterns, and tableaux. Glazounov is a well-crafted, if unremarkable, dance marred by a lackluster performance.

Moray and Malbrough also dance the principal roles in Duell’s River Suite. River Suite is not as carefully shaped as Glazounov, and it suffers from even more performance problems. The varying steps and shifting patterns of Glazounov suggest a kaleidoscope; the lines and circles of dancers running with extended arms in River Suite suggest a particularly busy morning on the runways at O’Hare. They’re dizzying rather than intriguing. The lifts look awkward and contrived. Very seldom does the movement seem to have anything at all to do with the music; at its most insistently percussive, the score powers the dance in entirely obvious ways. In one section, the women’s jumps are timed just slightly off the beat–a sharp and witty touch–but then timing problems intrude, obscuring the musical detail. And all too often, the dancers only sketch the movement, leaving us to wonder what River Suite could look like.

Gerard Charles’s Feral Forms also looks tentative, but seeing the dance a second time convinces me that its lack of conviction is a deliberate choreographic effect and not a problem of performance. Feral Forms nudges Karen Baynham, Christine Dorian, and Laura Taylor from pose to pose–it’s artful, artificial, anything but wild. Jazz and breakdancing quotations appear in the choreography danced by Malbrough and Mark Ward; but it too is sanitized. It seems that none of the movement wants to be danced full-out. The score is a taped collage of background music and text from the movie Kiss of the Spider Woman; but it’s nearly impossible to integrate the misogynistic dance images with the image of women that transforms William Hurt’s character in the movie. Feral Forms is a puzzle, and quickly palls.

The astonishing ensemble work that Ballet Chicago showed at Orchestra Hall last year has paled: the men’s consistent trouble with timing dulled Balanchine’s Allegro Brillante, and the women’s spatial uncertainty muddied this performance of Concerto Barocco. Apollo fared the best of Ballet Chicago’s four Balanchine dances this season. Malbrough, Adelfang, Dorian, and Moray danced simply and musically; Moray’s Terpsichore was especially intriguing–she looked a trifle pained, perhaps, but danced with nearly archetypal force.