Joffrey Ballet of Chicago

at the Shubert Theatre, through June 2

By Maura Troester

If any dance company can be considered the cat with nine lives, it’s the “new” Joffrey Ballet of Chicago. In its old life, it was simply the Joffrey Ballet, a world-class company renowned for its superb renditions of the classics and for risk-taking new choreography. In its new life, it’s suddenly “Chicago’s” Joffrey, not quite comfortable with its new home and, judging from its opening-night gala-benefit performance, not quite sure of its identity.

There are reasons the debt-ridden company has chosen Chicago as home instead of New York or Los Angeles: Gerald Arpino’s company’s been there, done that, and lost one life and a load of dough in the process. But it’s always bounced back from these and worse situations, and always stronger.

This year, however, the bounce seems a little less high. More than a third of the troupe is dancing with the company for the first time, and there are rumors of discontent among the rank and file. The polish and precision that characterized the company in previous incarnations were missing on opening night. Partnering was actually clunky at times, especially in the opening piece, Nuestros Valses, a complex dance whose success depends on precision and a smooth flow from one movement to the next. Ensemble work was weak as well, with an arm raised too soon here, a leg lifted too late there.

It’s difficult for a nomadic company like the Joffrey to marry itself to a place and take its name. With all its backers in attendance on opening night, the company’s future was at stake. And the dancers’ discomfort and sense of urgency were obvious in the evening’s grand finale, Laura Dean’s “Sometimes It Snows in April,” lifted from the hit rock ‘n’ roll ballet Billboards. As Prince’s song “Willing and Able” kicked off with a crescendo yell, the dancers ran into position and raised their hands above their heads in a display of excitement. “Chicago!” they screamed. Unfortunately, their cry seemed a gimmick to convince others of an enthusiasm they barely believed themselves.

If the Joffrey is the cat with nine lives, it’s also like the Cheshire Cat. Its magic fades in and fades out, but its wish to please remains constant. Always there’s that pasted-on smile. It’s an uncanny effect, one the Joffrey has admirably mastered in its attempt to remain true to the classics and still perform original new work. Last year the Joffrey seemed two totally different companies, depending on which program you happened to see and which choreography you happen to like. This year, the quality of the dancing also varied from program to program, but unfortunately success and failure weren’t contingent upon the choreography.

A Sunday matinee offered far stronger performances than on opening night. Lorena Feijoo and David Paul Kierce dancing George Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux reminded me of the old Joffrey: proud, strong, and sure of its artistry. Nuestros Valses was also performed with a fluid ease missing on opening night (the exception then was the beautiful partnering between Meridith Benson and Adam Sklute).

The magic did appear occasionally on opening night. It was visible in the excerpt from Dean’s Light Field/Structure, a duet superbly performed by veterans Pierre Lockett and Beatriz Rodriguez; but the dance was too short to keep the momentum going. Arpino’s Round of Angels also captured some of the thrill of past performances. His choreography can make humans seem forces of nature: in Light Rain they seem raindrops bouncing off a puddle, and in Round of Angels stars shooting across the sky–Feijoo and Daniel Baudendistel’s tender duet floats somewhere between earth and the heavens.

Suddenly Chicago has a world-class ballet company to put on the roster, next to our world-class symphony and opera and art museum. Or do we? The opening performances of Joffrey Ballet of Chicago reminded me of something Arpino once said, in a 1992 interview with Dance Magazine, about his decision to get involved in ballet when he was logically too old for success: “I felt I could either attack and bite off small pieces and gradually get there by an age too old to dance. Or I could aim high and fill in the blanks later.” He seems to be aiming high with this company; let’s hope he fills in the blanks.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Herb Migdoll.