In an interesting experiment this weekend, two of the city’s iconic arts organizations have joined forces. For the first time ever, the Joffrey Ballet is dancing at Symphony Center, accompanied by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
You might wonder, as I did, exactly how this would work. Ballet requires a lot of space, and the CSO—unlike ballet orchestras, which are consigned to the pit—fully and proudly occupies its own stage.
So here’s the answer to that: The first half of the program features the orchestra only, under the baton of guest conductor Matthias Pintscher. It plays a sprightly rendering of Rossini’s familiar Overture to The Barber of Seville (fun, if a little odd in a program all about Stravinsky and Ravel), followed by a truly magical performance of Ravel’sMother Goose (with especially beautiful work by flautist Emma Gerstein). The orchestra is front and center for this, as usual, with the conductor doing his own little dance and the entire ensemble in perfect, unified motion.
After intermission, the orchestra retreats to tighter quarters on a riser at the rear of the stage, and a portable dance floor is laid over the newly open area in front of them like a huge exercise mat. When five bare-chested male dancers appear for the opening section of Bliss!, a new, “nonlinear” ballet choreographed by Chicagoan Stephanie Martinez to Stravinsky’sConcerto in E-flat for Chamber Orchestra (also known as Dumbarton Oaks), what comes to mind is a neoclassical workout routine among friends at the gym. The impression lingers even after they’re joined by a pair of equally adept ballerinas.
Ravel’s Pavane for a Dead Princess provides a brief orchestral interlude before the dancers reappear in Commedia, choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon to music from Stravinsky’s Pulcinella. The original ballet was composed in 1920 (for the legendary Russian impresario Sergei Diaghilev, with sets and costumes by Picasso), but it was inspired by, and sounds a lot like, music of the 18th century. Wheeldon has retained the commedia dell’arte theme of the work; his eight dancers, sometimes masked, are dressed as harlequins. But the choreography again eschews narrative, presenting a showcase of well-executed but discrete dances that, in spite of the ballet’s title, are not all that comic.
Like the CSO, the Joffrey dancers are consummate performers, and this collaboration between icons in search of their future audiences will be revealing to fans of either or both. (The orchestra aficionado in the seat behind me complained about the repeated clunk of toe shoes on the floor.) In this instance at least, the takeaway may be that more is less. On a stage together, neither shows to best advantage. v