Six ballet dancers in a row, with two women standing left, two women standing right, and one woman being lifted by a man in the center.
Birthday Variations, part of Home: A Celebration with the Joffrey Ballet Credit: Cheryl Mann

Twenty months and one (ongoing) pandemic since their last performance at the Auditorium Theatre, their home of 20 years, the Joffrey Ballet launched its new tenure on the stage at the Lyric Opera House with a dazzlingly triumphant program of three new works by Chanel DaSilva, Nicolas Blanc, and Yoshihisa Arai and a classic by the late Gerald Arpino. Home: A Celebration demonstrates that the long stay at home, much of which was spent cloistered in its studios on State and Randolph, has given the company necessary time to develop craft, coherence, and a communion with each other that palpably extends into a packed opera house. There is a particular wonder to a full company of dancers onstage, a full orchestra in the pit, and a full house of fully vaccinated, masked humans ready to receive them, a sheer abundance of presence and a resonance in the air that no screen can replicate. What a glorious housewarming. 

The curtain rises on glittering chandeliers, a spray of stars in a velvet night, and spontaneous applause for Birthday Variations. The now-rare appearance of an Arpino work carries some historic significance. In addition to acknowledging the work of the former resident choreographer, codirector, and founding dancer of the Joffrey, the piece was commissioned as a birthday present by his wife for former Opera House owner Dino D’Angelo to music by Verdi and premiered on the Lyric stage 35 years ago during the company’s 30th anniversary year. 

Five ballerinas in a froth of romantic tutus fold and unfold like a clockwork flower around a single male dancer. Fleet feet skim the floor with gravity-defying speed, then pause with a hummingbird hover before flying again. Harmonious and virtuosic ensemble work, solo variations, and a pas de deux, executed with smiles fixed to faces with stalwart determination, offer a textbook picture of ballet in pastel: very feminine, very pretty. 

Home: A Celebration
Through 10/24: Fri 7:30 PM, Sat 2 and 7:30 PM, Sun 2 PM; also Thu 10/21, 7:30 PM; Lyric Opera House, 20 N. Wacker, 312-386-8905, joffrey.org, $35-$169.

This pleasant image evaporates in New York-based choreographer DaSilva’s dark and dramatic Swing Low, which premiered online in May of this year and onstage at Ravinia in September. Feathers fall from the sky as a fog spreads over a dim stage, whereupon a shirtless, jeans-clad soloist (Fernando Duarte) lies prone. To haunting, driving music by Zoë Keating (arranged by Michael Moricz, played live by Keating herself on opening night), he awakens in a torment, first alone, then surrounded by the apparition of four winged beings—not sylphs nor fairies but avenging angels. The vision is fallen Lucifer and postapocalyptic reckoning—the audible shiver of wings, the shudder of the body in ecstatic pain, a tarot card or Byzantine icon in motion that can be interpreted as disaster or salvation. 

Swing Low Credit Cheryl Mann

Feral and ferocious on opening night, Duarte crawls as the others fly; he falls and they catch him with the perceptible slap of flesh on flesh; they drag him along the floor, then embrace him. The use of the wings conceived by DaSilva is stunning—no mere ornament, they are an extension of the expression, sometimes flouncing, sometimes flaming, sometimes with the absurd emphasis of pigeons or piñatas or parade floats, overall a reminder of the yearning for flight, tragic, temporary, briefly achieved.

Under the Trees’ Voices Credit Cheryl Mann

Translucent leaves filter the light in a gorgeous mobile set designed by Jack Mehler for Under the Trees’ Voices, Joffrey rehearsal director Blanc’s work for 15 dancers to music by Ezio Bosso, which premieres onstage in this program. The leaves softly spread, descend, and rise, placing us in the slow time of plants growing. From the vastness of the ensemble, spiraling duets begin—partnerships that rarely part bodies, creating instead the sense of emergent organic forms in constant evolution. When the ensemble moves together in unison or in canon, it moves with the magic of leaves rippling in the wind and clouds shifting, connected by the subtle fascia that holds an ecosystem together—sometimes with incredible speed, as when the women all whirl in a sequence of turns that change direction as fast as light hits the scales of a coordinated school of fish. But what is exceptionally beautiful in this work is the cultivated sense of stillness in the dancers as a whole. It is the stillness of trees and stones, the stillness of emptied architecture, the stillness of humans waiting together.  

Boléro Credit Cheryl Mann

The evening closes with company dancer Arai’s Boléro, another work first seen online and given its stage premiere in this program. The familiar Ravel score is given a brief, cacophonous prologue of instruments tuning as the curtain rises on a woman (Anais Bueno) walking forward in what appears to be a nightshirt (designed by company dancer Temur Suluashvili). Dark figures sinuously surround her like a pulsing fever dream, then, at the end, depart. Though not particularly bound by narrative or necessity, everyone on stage commits.