at the Civic Center for Performing Arts

March 2-5

Let’s face it. Chicago is kind of a staid place. It wears furry hats and nylon boots. It adores its football team. It writes in Ed Vrdolyak. The ballet repertoire can be rather staid, too. Put the two together, and there’s the potential for a dangerous level of boredom.

Ballet Chicago seems well aware of this danger, and the fledgling company has so far avoided pandering to the lowest common denominator. In the year or so of its short life, this troupe has presented an intelligent, varied repertoire, challenging to dancers and audience alike. It has risen from the ashes of Chicago City Ballet to attain a remarkable new life of its own, in part I think because these dancers and their artistic director, Daniel Duell, are hungry. But do they have the audience for what they’d like to achieve?

After seeing them, and their audience, at the Civic last weekend, I have to hope they’ll continue being hungry–but not too hungry. Although their choices were still diverse, some seemed to stoop to ballet’s tricks of the trade: lots of fancy leaps and romantic situations, the kind of thing that will make a ten-year-old balletomane gasp, but won’t give an adult a thing to think about.

I was able to see only one of the two programs that Ballet Chicago presented; of the six dances I saw on that evening, two were new to their repertoire. (The second program, shown on Saturday and Sunday, included two more additions, so you can see the company has been busy since their September performances at Orchestra Hall.)

I have to say, though, that of the two new dances I saw, only one seemed a worthy addition: Peter Martins’s 1978 Calcium Light Night. With its chilly, stark choreography, its angular subversions of the ballet idiom, and its intense verticality–like an El Greco in a modernist style–it was a bracing slap in the face, given the evening’s other, more traditional works. It was also nicely and coolly danced by Petra Adelfang and Manard Stewart.

One of the more traditional pieces–already a part of the company’s repertoire–was Duell’s own Seven Poetic Waltzes. Set to music by Enrique Granados, this dance for five couples has a pretty surface and a very adept musicality that tend to obscure the work’s more serious side. Yet Duell seems to be pointing out that the waltz is not only a trivial social distraction but a traditional lovers’ dance, and he fully exploits that emotional potential in some of the choreography: in one pas de deux the woman was made to curl like a halo around the man’s head.

The other dances I’d seen Ballet Chicago perform before were George Balanchine’s 1941 Concerto Barocco and Lisa de Ribere’s Orchesographie, which was created for Ballet Chicago last fall. Orchesographie is a saucy, atypical dance for five men. But instead of emphasizing men’s power, it shows their wit, pliancy, and vivacity. It also integrates an inventive mix of idioms, from Renaissance court dancing to jazz dance, so you see everything from mincing little bows from the waist to sexy hip swings. The men look fine in their tight black “tuxedos,” both slim and curvy, like so many animated musical notes.

The dances I had not seen before (besides Calcium Light Night) were the pas de deux from Le corsaire, choreographed by Marius Petipa and Vakhtang Chabukiani, and a much more recent work, Rodin, choreographed by Stuart Sebastian. The first seems to me no more than a rehearsed athletic event, and the second is pure schlock.

Rodin opens with its two dancers (Sherry Moray and Joseph Malbrough) in the pose of Auguste Rodin’s second most famous sculpture, The Kiss. The dancers remain motionless for a minute or so, while the pedestal they’re seated on revolves slowly, prefiguring the creaky staginess of the entire dance. Then the dancers unwind themselves, and it’s a brutal shock at first to see that they’re clothed in some kind of flesh-colored second skin that bears an unfortunate resemblance to long underwear.

Nude subjects were part and parcel of Rodin’s iconoclasm–though of course these days we don’t really notice either the nudity or the iconoclasm of his sculpture. Onstage nudity, even today, would be a different matter; I suppose it was out of the question at the Civic. Still, for a moment I wished the dancers had been nude. Then, as the dance went on, I realized that nudity would have made it more sensational but that only a much better dance could have brought Rodin’s rebellious spirit to life.

The four-part dance seems to trace the breakdown of the lovers’ relationship: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy is sad. But Rodin seemed to me the work of someone who knows all the gestures of love and none of the feelings. Although the choreography sometimes succeeds–as when the man pulls the woman into his arms so speedily it’s like two magnets leaping together–most of it is almost unbelievably hackneyed. In the man’s solo, for example, he brings his clenched fist to his forehead and then sweeps it down, palm open, in a gesture that says all too plainly: “Oh God! Why me?” Full of poses and affectation, Rodin featured the kind of dancing that telegraphs the dancers’ efforts to the audience: I am going to become . . . just . . . so. There! I’m just so. Now I’m going to remain . . . just . . . so. The ending is so trite, so predictable, that I was ashamed that the audience laughed in recognition and appreciation. I’ll give you a hint: the male dancer assumes the pose of Rodin’s most famous sculpture.

Rodin is so bad that it occurred to me it was meant to be tongue-in-cheek. I thought it might be a spoof of 19th-century romanticism, with its Impressionist-sculptor subject, romantic music (by Chopin), and the silly, diaphanous floor-to-ceiling drape that was the main feature of the set. But nothing in the dancers’ presentation seemed ironic. I can only assume that Rodin is nothing but a bald-faced appeal to the ballet audience’s taste for schmaltz.

Balanchine’s Concerto Barocco is whole galaxies distant from a dance like Rodin. Concerto Barocco is the most civilized dance I’ve ever seen, a visionary’s glimpse of a world full of harmony and order (of course Bach’s music–the Concerto for Two Violins in D Minor–has a hand in that). The party line is that Concerto Barocco is abstract–a cool, formal interpretation of the music–but I don’t buy that, or at least not completely. Balanchine didn’t consult some mythical dictionary that allowed him to “translate” music into dance; he made decisions that nudged his ballet in certain emotional directions.

For one thing, he filled the dance with women: eight corps members and two soloists. This is the dance of a man who loved women. The single male dancer appears only in the second movement, and he plays a subordinate role. The women could seem like his harem but they don’t–they’re more like the supportive medium in which he lives, like seawater buoying and consoling him. When the women in one moment twine around the man like garlands around a maypole, it’s less as if he’s supporting them than as if they’re supporting him. There’s an abundance of held hands and twining beneath limbs here, chains of dancers moving across the stage–the interconnectedness gives the sense of knitting, of knots formed and re-formed to make a fabric, with everything of love and comfort that image implies.

Although it’s true that Balanchine’s choreography mirrors–or perhaps amplifies–the music, it does something more. In the second movement, in a passage when the bottom drops out of the music–twice–and gives the listener a delicious sense of falling, the female soloist, held by the man, slips down to the floor and briefly back up in an arc as satisfying as it is unnerving. At just that instant you see that the second female soloist has unexpectedly appeared upstage. Suddenly there’s just the bare possibility of trouble in paradise, of a romantic triangle. There’s a gut response compounded of vicarious physical sensation and of emotional identification, you hardly know with whom.

To have our own homegrown ballet troupe perform Concerto Barocco is a gift to the city, a gift given at great personal cost to the people presenting it. But what’s a gift without a recipient? The women seated directly behind me, who loved Rodin, left during the intermission that preceded Balanchine’s masterwork.