The Four Temperaments Credit: Cheryl Mann

T

he development of modern dance was led by women who strained against
existing forms to create something new: Isadora Duncan by discarding
corsets and shoes, Ruth St. Denis by introducing elements of Eastern dance
to mainstream Western culture, Martha Graham by emphasizing the piercing
articulation of feeling—each of them consciously resisting the strictures
of ballet, a dance developed by European aristocracy and formally modeled
on the hierarchy of Louis XIV’s court. In this sense, it’s a paradox to
describe ballet, or classical dance, as “modern”—and more so to devise a
program that canonizes choreography by (white) men, though that seems to be
the rationale behind the Joffrey’s 2017-2018 “Ashley Anniversary” season
celebrating Ashley Wheater’s ten years as artistic director.

Modern Masters consists of George Balanchine’s early workThe Four Temperaments (1946) and Jerome Robbins’s late ballet Glass Pieces (1983), both new acquisitions for the Joffrey,
sandwiching two recent works by Myles Thatcher and Nicolas Blanc. As danced
opening night, The Four Temperaments was executed with pretentious
affectation by nearly all involved, as if a pelvic thrust were a codified
position rather than the vertiginous tilting of the body from its axis and
as if, in the absence of story, there were no drama to be found in the
tension of the action itself-falling, threading, pushing, spiraling.
Yoshihisa Arai danced the first variation with a billowing loft,
wonderfully suspended by unseen forces, but overall the enterprise seemed
misunderstood, as though re-created from stills and danced into a mirror
without desire, interest, propulsion. The dancers were unassisted by a
somewhat phlegmatic rendition of Paul Hindemith’s score by the Chicago
Philharmonic.

Thatcher’s Body of Your Dreams and Blanc’s Beyond the Shore each exemplify a different aspect of the problem
of contemporary ballet: the tendency to push technique and increase
spectacle at the expense of the ability to conjure human life and feeling
from nothing but motion and stillness. A hyperactive aerobic workout, Body of Your Dreams has dancers flexing and contorting to slogans
about “cellulite” and “flabbiness” and vapid affirmations like “that’s
incredible” on a loop: it’s self-aware about ballet’s pledge to youth and
beauty, but ultimately it’s vacant eye candy, though the dancers perform it
with an energy missing from the Balanchine. In six movements with enough
costume changes to have drained the entire season’s wardrobe budget, Beyond the Shore proceeds with all the appeal of a
screensaver-pretty shapes that fill and kill space and time-excepting the
duet “Gemini in the Solar Wind” in which the lapidary Victoria Jaiani is
conceived as a satellite probing the far reaches of the universe, firmly
held in her orbit by Fabrice Calmels.

Glass Pieces
rounds out an overlong program with corps dancers walking, bopping, and
swaying like time ticking by while sleek principals condescend to appear
among them. Oh, America!   v