at the Auditorium Theatre

April 29-May3

Ballet tends to reduce women to one of two images: the ballerina as a cool, active, independent force, the agent of her own destiny and dancing, or as the object of male fantasy and desire, hurled, hauled around, and deprived of volition. The most interesting dances present an image somewhere between the two, an image more complicated, complex, and complete than either extreme. But not surprisingly, most dances cluster around the passive pole.

Gerald Arpino’s Birthday Variations is extremely surprising: it proffers both images and very little in between. Created in 1986 to honor the late Chicagoan Dino D’Angelo, founder of the Civic Center for Performing Arts (now Civic Stages Chicago), and the Joffrey’s 30th anniversary, this work celebrates youth, charm, and gentility. At first the dance seems familiar, comfortable, conventional. The women wear romantic tutus in warm pastels; the cavalier wears white tights, a decorated vest, and gray velvet jacket. Masterful lighting suggests the play of changing sun- and moonlight on an enchanted landscape. Splashy entrances and exits, leaps and turns, introduce the Prologue; the Opening weaves intriguing patterns around a central–male–figure.

Then Birthday Variations swings to the other pole. The women’s variations offer the dance’s most musical and whimsical movement, steely, pliant movement displaying both muscular and mental agility–peculiar, bent-legged pointe work; fast, flashy steps; sustained balances. Each solo fills the stage; the women–Cameron Basden, Deborah Dawn, Cynthia Giannini, Lissette Salgado, and Tina LeBlanc–are strong, self-assured, and utterly self-sufficient.

These variations surround LeBlanc’s pas de deux with Tyler Walters, a pas de deux from the other end of the spectrum. In its most lasting image, Walters raises LeBlanc high overhead; she perches on his extended arm, her torso curving backward over him like an umbrella. The viewer marvels at his strength and her poise in such a precarious, distorted position. Again and again he lifts and carries her in circuits around the stage. At the end he drags her upstage into gathering darkness: she supports her weight on one slim pointe, but he controls the movement; her body faces him, but her torso arches back to face the audience; her arms wave from side to side. The image simultaneously suggests ecstasy and entrapment. Seen against the background of the women’s variations, the pas de deux implies that, however self-willed a woman may be alone, in the company of a man she is his creature.

Perhaps there is something in the very nature of the pas de deux, in the relationships it implies, that resists the affirmation of both independence and relatedness. While the title of Laura Dean’s new pas de deux, Structure, emphasizes the dance’s formal elements, the work does ultimately suggest a relationship between the dancers. Perhaps because it appeals to the intellect–the dance insistent- ly repeats and discloses its choreographic structure–Structure evokes a male-female relationship very different from the one in Arpino’s Birthday Variations.

Structure assigns each dancer a signature phrase, each phrase a different interpretation of a circular path comprising unadorned extensions, leaps, and turns. The two dancers alternately repeat their solos, then dance in unison, moving as one across a great gulf of space. In the first section, they are utterly independent and unrelated, separated by space, time, and their individual movement phrases; in the second section, separate in space alone. In the third, Structure approaches conventional partnering as closely as Dean’s movement vocabulary will allow: the dancers’ interdependent movement differs (one lifts, one is lifted), but they are spatially, temporally, and choreographically linked. Finally, the dancers’ individual phrases overlap; describing the same circle, they are related in both space and time but again are choreographically distinct.

Structure lacks the power and transcendence, the paradoxical restraint and tumult, characteristic of Dean’s ensemble works like Light Field, which also received its Chicago premiere. Dean’s group dances are very nearly overwhelming despite their insistent simplicity. Like Structure, Light Field explores and exploits the repetition of clear and simple phrases. But an ensemble of eight admits greater complexity: the choreography presents these four women and four men as couples, as same-sex groups, and as distinct individuals. The dance invites the viewer to ponder contrasts as well as relationships. Dean’s choreography loosens some of the restraints of ballet’s gender roles–a woman is just as likely to leap onto her partner’s shoulders and swing herself into position there as she is to be lifted and moved, for example. But her dances do capitalize on other gender-specific conventions: the women dance on pointe, the men leap higher.

Initially, Light Field’s ensemble consists of four couples: each pair, entering one after the other, performs an individual phrase, crossing the stage first on the diagonal, then straight across the front; the first pair begins the next cross before the fourth pair has finished. Each couple’s phrase is a different variation of space-devouring lifts, spins, and leaps performed with split-second timing and utter spatial precision. Glenn Branca’s driving, percussive score begins only after the second cross; even then the viewer has barely had enough time to see all the movement, much less take it all in. In the second section, each dancer performs the same phrase: more a matter of steps and jumps than the earlier material, this phrase swaggers forward and slinks back, crossing the stage so gradually that the next diagonal begins before the last dancer has left the stage. Groups form and dissolve with bewildering speed; the stage is a blur of shining gold lame costumes and bright, warm light, but certain images stand out–couples leaning toward each other to clasp both hands, then pulling away in a shared balance; a line of women moving steadily backward while a line of men weaves around and between them, spinning all the while; a man and woman wheeling by, launching each other in turn. The phrases of the opening reappear briefly; then one by one the dancers still, and Light Field ends in a quiet circle.

Men too are limited by conventional images in ballet, but the Joffrey has always had a rich and varied repertoire for its male dancers. Peter Pucci’s new Moon of the Falling Leaves, set on Joffrey members Daniel Otevrel and Gregory Taylor and guest artists Miguel Aviles and Pucci, doesn’t restrict its dancers to homoerotic and athletic imagery, but neither does it push the movement vocabulary beyond virtuosic leaps and acrobatics.

The score for Moon of the Falling Leaves sounds like nothing you’ve ever heard in the Auditorium before; composed and performed by guest artist Brent Michael Davids, Penipimakat-Ki’sox incorporates crystal soprano and bass flutes, clay flute, skin drum and other percussion, electronics, and a Mohican text. The score is both foreign and familiar, far more intriguing than the stolid choreography.

Moon of the Falling Leaves begins with a lengthy tableau: the light glimmers along the dancers’ shoulders and raised arms; eventually their wrists circle, their hands open, and their fingers spread. Forearms, fists, and fingers execute small, specific, nearly gestural movements over a still and grounded base. When the dancers finally do move, the patterns they describe–shifting, expanding, and contracting squares and circles–are what attract notice. The choreography and staging distance the viewer even further: the dancer slaps his forearms together, against his chest, and against his neighbor’s arms with machinelike precision; the subtle, smoky lighting depersonalizes the performers; their eyes never seem to meet. The most resonant images are those that link the dancers: the handstand in which each leans into and against the rest, the tight circle that places each dancer’s head on his neighbor’s shoulder. The dancers are most fully revealed as individuals at the end, each standing far downstage in bright shafts of light, gazing at the audience; they are also then most fully fierce, inscrutable, and alien.

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