Joffrey Ballet

at the Auditorium Theatre,

January 24-29

I felt a twinge of confusion watching the crowd jump to their feet during the finale of Joffrey’s rock ballet Billboards. Prince’s bopping “Willing and Able” blasted through the Auditorium punctured by cries of “Bravo!” Ballerinas on pointe shook their behinds, and male dancers posed like so many strippers in a revue. The audience ate it up. They loved it. And all I could think was, “This can’t be the same Joffrey that performed here Tuesday.”

On opening night the audience was silently awestruck by the company’s profound beauty. Light Rain, the final dance (choreographed by cofounder Gerald Arpino in 1981), slowly mesmerized us with a pas de deux by Valerie Madonia and Daniel Baudendistel. It left me wondering how a group of dancers can lie on the stage, contract their torsos, and look like a puddle reflecting the streetlights as the rain bounces off. And it left me amazed at the strength, flexibility, and expressiveness of Madonia and Baudendistel, who seduce us without ever being overtly sexual.

The Joffrey is a rare ballet company. Since 1956 its beauty has been that it works within the confines of classical European ballet yet produces dances that sing the diversity of American culture. Few dance troupes have the range of expression necessary to pull off both Billboards and Light Rain, and even fewer appeal to such different audiences. While balletomanes might deem Billboards cheap, general audiences love it. At the same time, less educated audiences might be bored with Arpino’s Birthday Variations–the confection danced to Verdi that opened Tuesday’s show–but a balletomane might thrill to Arpino’s clean, elegant composition and his dancers’ lush, precise performances.

The Joffrey’s artistic integrity shines in A Tri-Fling, one of Randy Duncan’s first choreographic commissions since leaving Joseph Holmes Chicago Dance Theatre in 1993. In this angst-ridden tale of a love triangle, accessibility and artistry blend beautifully. There’s nothing trifling about this fling, and there’s also nothing trifling about the performance given by David Kierce, Lissette Salgado, and Pierre Lockett. Holmes dancers are brash; their emotions seem to sizzle on the skin. Joffrey dancers bring a different sort of integrity to Duncan’s work. They move with a seriousness that suits Duncan’s choreography, deepening the meaning while highlighting the form.

Martha Clarke, Felix Blaska, and Robby Barnett’s The Garden of Villandry, which followed Duncan’s piece, offers an interesting contrast. First performed by the Joffrey here in 1992, it also tells the tale of a love triangle, but these three Edwardian lovers are a far cry from Duncan’s, driven by passion. If asked about the title, one would expect this trio to respond in perfect Oxford accents, “Oh, no, nothing villainous about it. A trifle, actually.” For that is how they respond. Their movement is light and subtle, and so is the tip and sway of their emotions. Sometimes it seems that the choreographers intended this dance to be funnier than it’s played here. But in my mind this serious interpretation is more satisfying. The way Tyler Walters, Beatriz Rodriguez, and Tom Mossbrucker dance their love triangle, it’s a game played with absolute respect for the rules. That their feelings aren’t part of the game makes it all the more villainous.

This leads me to the problem I have with most of the choreography in Billboards. Both A Tri-Fling and The Garden of Villandry emphasize the fact that sex is something that happens between real people. Billboard’s choreographers–Laura Dean, Charles Moulton, Margo Sappington, and (to a lesser extent) Peter Pucci–simply play up the fact that Prince recorded a lot of songs about sex. So they put as much sex in their dances as possible. And because they also knew that Billboards was supposed to appeal to a wide audience, they made the choreography as simple as possible and put in as many impressive leaps and acrobatics as they could.

The Joffrey has always taken artistic risks. Even Billboards was a risk: though it’s bringing in audiences that don’t normally go to ballet, it’s a flop artistically. But the company can most likely handle the fact that the choreography flops. Like most dance troupes, they desperately need the money.

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