Two men in denim work clothes sit. The man on the left is sitting on a bench, pointing upward. The man on the right is following the direction with his eyes.
Xavier Núñez and Dylan Gutierrez in Of Mice and Men at the Joffrey Ballet. Credit: Todd Rosenberg

The evening begins with Ukrainian composer Myroslav Skoryk’s melancholy Melody meandering through the auditorium, a haunting tune that invites contemplation. Curtain down, panels bordering the stage lit in blue and yellow, vines rise in relief where pillars would seem to stand: a ruin retaken by foliage or a reminder of the interdependence of nature and culture? Contrast becomes the focal point—light and darkness, sky and earth—differences and complements that enable us to see and be—a theme sustained in the Joffrey’s presentation of George Balanchine’s 1934 Serenade and world premiere of Cathy Marston’s Of Mice and Men. Ballet tends to reinforce the gender binary, from training to performance. In an evening that features a feminine world imagined by a male choreographer and a masculine world imagined by a female one, these contrasts serve to highlight difference, power, and possibility in a striking commentary on equity and power, democracy and hierarchy. 

Serenade and Of Mice and Men
Through 5/8: Thu-Fri 7:30 PM, Sat 2 and 7:30 PM, Sun 2 PM; Lyric Opera House, 20 N. Wacker, 312-386-8905,, $35-$172.

All the strings call at once from the pit in Tchaikovsky’s 1880 Serenade for Strings in C Major, an incredible, forceful, lustrous invocation that makes you hear the silence immediately before it as a cosmic inhalation, a generous deliverance onto a stage bathed in blue, 17 dancers standing in formation with romantic tutus hovering, palms of the hands lifted as if to shield themselves from the light, before their fingertips extend to touch it. At first, they perform a simple sequence that echoes the beginning of every class: port de bras, first position, tendu.

From stillness and unison, patterns emerge and accelerate with breathtaking swiftness, then just as rapidly evolve and develop intricacies, as dancers join hands, link arms, traverse the stage, sometimes together, then in increasing complexity to produce revelatory geometries. Victoria Jaiani arrives on the stage with the gravity and majesty of a queen; whether in stillness or in motion, she is mesmerizing. Gayeon Jung tiptoes in, the latecomer—stays behind as if lost, then joins a duet that begins with light touch on the shoulder by Stefan Goncalvez. 

Gayeon Jung and Victoria Jaiani in George Balanchine’s Serenade at Joffrey Ballet. Credit Cheryl Mann

As danced by the Joffrey on opening night, the resonances with the second act of Giselle were notable—unconcerned Wilis at home in their realm, dancing by moonlight in labyrinthine structures of their own making, a few men permitted to exist here and there, as long as they cooperate, occasionally offer support, and don’t interfere too much. Only the first duet extends to the length of any import. But no violence need occur, as Jaiani gently leads Barbosa away from Jung—eyes covered so he can’t find his way back. At the end, Jung is lifted high above, trailed by the corps below, an ascendance into a realm of beauty, harmony, and sisterhood that defies the chaos of human relations.

After intermission, its opposite: a low drone signals the menacing vignette that opens Of Mice and Men. Two men are placed on a stage sparely divided with an abstract structure that could be a degenerate cross, a pistol pointed, the tension of the shot waiting. Based on the 1937 novella by John Steinbeck, with scenario by Marston and Edward Kemp, music by Thomas Newman, lighting and scenic design by Lorenzo Savoini, and costume design by Bregje van Balen, Marston’s ballet tells its story tersely, with great legibility and intensity. In the environs of lumber town Weed, California, migrant farm workers George (Xavier Núñez and Alberto Velazquez) and Lennie (Dylan Gutierrez) shift among mobs of men, dreaming of the day they’ll have a home.

Everyone is similar: dirt-colored, flat-footed, hungry to get ahead—so when Curley’s wife (Amanda Assucena) struts in, pointes piercing the ground beneath her, she catches your eye—and theirs—and she knows it. Here, where everything is scarce and the only language is domination, she brandishes her goods, flicks her skirt up like a waterspout with a flip of the hip, and owns each man in a hot second—at least until her ill-tempered husband (Fernando Duarte) shows up, and all action is reduced to the roughness of push and shove, rinse and repeat. 

Alberto Velazquez, Amanda Assucena, and Xavier Núñez in Of Mice and Men Chery Mann

Within this environment, quiet moments of tenderness and imagination become more poignant: in Lennie’s hands, a canvas bag shapes itself into a bunny—the workers envision a house like an object embraced in the air. The space they create in privacy is a refuge for differences in mind, body, and ethnicity (though notably not yet gender), which are all viewed as disabilities in this narrow-minded society.

Trouble begins when a piece of scarlet silk wafts into Weed, an almost unearthly substance tethered to a woman’s body in the form of a garment that amplifies every swirl and twirl with a captivating sheen, billowing out and then slipping away, the visual definition of material allure, begging for our touch. (Elsewhere in the opera house stands a gown once worn by Maria Callas, a sumptuous velvet with gems gleaming around the décolletage, lush red flowing and fanning down to a pool trailing yards behind—one longs for nothing more than to extend a hand and caress this velutinous relic—she almost seems within our reach.) Unfortunately Lennie, with his fascination for softness and the misfortune of his iron grip, does.

Trouble erupts when Curley’s wife wonders whether she can best this most dangerous man. Lennie likes hay. Feathers. Hair. It’s a disaster. 

And so it goes in an environment visualized almost entirely in unpainted wooden planks. Everything is about the same brownish-blondish color. Everything is set at flat right angles to build a world with a paucity of dimension and possibility. Throughout, they are deployed as divisions and barriers, occasionally shelters and supports, instruments to sound upon, sometimes only abstract squares. Curley never goes to her body; he only goes for vengeance. 

How did violence become a form of mercy? What must others become when those with power construct a world of exclusion? And how can those same minds envision alternatives and not choose to wield their privilege there instead? The problems and solutions are both present within.