Joffrey Ballet

at the Auditorium Theatre, September 28-October 3

Androgyny is what makes Prince dangerous and alluring: he’s both soft and hard, yielding and urgent, his voice a satiny falsetto or a tough, gravelly purr. He’s perfect for the world of dance, where men are sensual and women are lean, hard, and strong. It’s not surprising that Billboards, the Joffrey’s evening-length ballet to the music of Prince, has been hugely successful: the Joffrey’s known for its rock ballets and for its “American” character, and Prince is a deservedly popular artist, a big draw. And this dance in four parts by four different choreographers is as flashy, as commercial, and as outsize as you’d expect from the title.

Joffrey artistic director Gerald Arpino says in a program note that Americans traveling the country watch “billboards loom overhead, reflecting our society and enveloping our senses with their direct, powerful messages.” If these dances do the same, what are the messages being sent? Unfortunately but perhaps inevitably they’re not new–nowhere near as threatening to our complacency about sexuality as Prince is in his music. Only one choreographer of the four even approaches the delicate, insidious way he foments revolution.

In the opening three-song section, “Sometimes It Snows in April,” Laura Dean takes androgyny as a given, seeing same-sex attraction as a part of life as natural as breathing or friendship–just as Prince does in his ballad of the same name, an acoustic-guitar elegy for a childhood friend, a boy named Tracy. Dean’s clean, clear floor patterns–lines snaking back and forth across the stage, crisscrossing it, forming circles and circles within circles–and the classical restraint she enforces, especially in the first song, give this dance a refreshing innocence, especially in the context of Billboards as a whole. Sometimes it has the look of folk dance: facing each other in a circle, the dancers exclude us but create their own community. A motif from the first section only superficially resembles a jazz layout: a dancer pushes forward with the hips and arms, follows through with the torso and finally the head. But though the movement is urgent and purposeful, it’s never brutal; it looks questing, vulnerable, and very, very young. In another phrase two women briefly touch heads, then two men do the same–an instinctive, loving leaning together like two kids at play. Later, after putting their heads together, one dancer drops to the floor and is caught by the other.

The advantage of starting so slowly is that Dean can build the energy to a climactic point for the third and final song, “Baby I’m a Star,” when she creates a whole field of dancers facing and openly seducing us in unison. The effect is electric but on a human scale, like the best of Prince’s music. In many of the later sections the dancers’ energy is focused so relentlessly outward that we’re numbed and finally bored.

Charles Moulton’s “Thunder/Purple Rain,” the second section, recalls childhood too, but in a dark, immature way: this lurid paranoid fantasy relies on a stereotype of women as powerful and manipulative–bad mommies. I kept thinking of Peter Pan, of the lost children and absent or threatening parents, perhaps because the dancers are garishly dressed like pirates, clowns, or cowboys and sport green, purple, and orange hair. There’s even a fairy, though she’s much nastier than Tinkerbelle, waving a magic wand topped by a heart up a man’s body in a gesture clearly meant to arouse him, then across his neck as if slitting his throat. The movements are nightmarish: thrusting pelvises, pumping arms, rumps offered for mounting, fingers sucked off.

Moulton’s second dance, to the song “Purple Rain,” is a bit quieter but no less ghoulish and paranoid. A woman in whiteface and a filmy white clown suit, a Pierrot with open mouth and staring eyes, staggers about as if trying to escape something, then doffs the clown outfit to reveal a glittery unitard that makes her look like a golden lizard. I’ve never seen a dancer so emphatically, histrionically floppy; her every move expresses helplessness and horror. But in the end there’s nothing genuinely horrifying about Moulton’s dance: its message–that sex is scary because another person might be able to control us–is old hat, and its method has more to do with bad acting than dancing.

Margo Sappington–an amiable choreographer with a good feel for the solipsistic sexual energies of adolescence–is well known to Chicagoans through her work with Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, and her section for Billboards, “Slide,” has a familiar look: the men’s macho posing recalls her most recent Hubbard Street effort, The Forging Ground, and the women’s seductive, aggressive kicks and kittenish paws suggest Step Out of Love. There’s a hint of narrative in “Slide,” about a man who seems doomed to dream of women rather than connect with them, and the stage has been dressed with a drape and some chairs to suggest an enclosed space, which gives this section a more domestic, ordinary feeling than the others have. Sappington is very much at home with the jazz vocabulary, and she sets up some nice contrasts in movement between the women, who dance together on pointe in a way that’s a little pristine and prim, and the men, who are like loose-jointed shaggy dogs following the women with tongues lolling out. But the stereotypes of distant, unattainable women and of men full of bravado, combined with the familiar jazz vocabulary, make for a pretty ho-hum effort.

At least in Peter Pucci’s section, “Willing and Able,” people actually come together and have a single purpose: sex. Yet there’s no way Pucci meets Prince on his own ground. Take the second song, “The Question of U”: Prince’s music is powered by a slow blues grind, but there’s nothing funky or down-home about Pucci’s choreography. No, this is ceremonial sex, with all the juice sucked out of it–sexual gestures so stylized and mechanical they seem to come from some MTV ritual rather than the bedroom or the backseat of a car. The focus is on a man and woman in red whose arms move like semaphors: they grab each other’s butts, bend each other back, clasp each other’s legs in one pose after another, stop and go. Whatever liquidity and fullness the dancing has it gets from the song–but no way does the choreography come up to that standard.

I found Pucci’s sexual posturing so well-worn and commercial that in the next song, “It,” the same-sex couples dancing together didn’t seem the least bit revolutionary. We’ve seen these body parts coming together, these undulations and vibrations, before in thousands of movies, TV commercials, and print ads. There’s little that’s human or genuinely sexy about them. In fact, with the exception of Laura Dean’s original vision, which seems to place us before the Fall, what we see in Billboards is what we see in the signage throughout our lives: that conventional boy-girl sex sells in America.

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