at Orchestra Hall

September 22-24

Traditionally, ballet is accompanied by live music, but putting the musicians onstage is unusual. Historically (especially in Chicago), ballet companies attract audiences and acclaim because of guest stars and bravura dancing, not because of the strength of the ensemble or the inherent interest of the choreography.

In their first full downtown season, Ballet Chicago put musicians on the stage at Orchestra Hall and bravely dispensed with the elaborate sets, stories, and costumes often used to cloak a multitude of weaknesses. They emerged as a genuinely new company, not just a new arrangement of Chicago City Ballet; their programming, dancing, and staging underscored the differences between Ballet Chicago and their predecessor, and emphasized how seriously they take their endeavor.

The influence of George Balanchine and the New York City Ballet is obvious–inevitable, too, given Balanchine’s single-handed transformation of European opera-house ballet into an American art form. Innovation and reinterpretation of traditional forms and materials are as important to the ballet as revolutions in staging and technique are to modern dance. Ballet Chicago’s artistic director, Daniel Duell, is sensitive to tradition, but not bound by it.

Ballet Chicago’s weaknesses are obvious, but they are no more and no worse than one would expect of any fledgling company: several company members lack technical polish; the dancers need to project less effort and more ease and enjoyment.

The company’s strength lies in its choice of choreography. Duell’s Octet a Tete is bright, intelligent, and witty, full of visual references to the score and to other, familiar dances. His choreography is equally sensitive to the American ballet tradition and the strengths of these particular dancers; it is charming, musical, and well crafted.

Only in Octet a Tete does the company seem to have fun: Petra Adelfang, Patti Eylar, Oswaldo Muniz, Manard Stewart, Suzy Strain, and Mark Ward sparkle throughout the piece’s introduction, variations, and finale. Two trios enter the space walking in great backward slides. The dancers form a circle; one individual pops out, then another. They bourree through and around each other, first in a Gordian knot, then in a long diagonal line. When they resolve themselves into a line of three pairs, the stage explodes–jumps, lifts, pas de chats, first by the men, then by the women, then in unison, then pairs dancing in canon. When the women pause just one split second, their partners grab and upend them like construction workers shouldering two-by-fours, an image all the more charming for its incongruity and surprise.

In the first variation, Muniz and Ward enter carrying Adelfang poised high overhead, all with straight arms and legs. They set her down, and when she erupts in fouettes, they can do nothing but look at each other, at us, shrug, and join in. They repeat the initial, huge lift: straight-legged, seven feet above the floor, she seems to stride across the stage. An unexpected transformation, and she is seesawing in midair.

The second variation, set on Eylar, Strain, and Stewart, is even funnier, for reasons of performance as much as of choreography. Stewart grins at the audience–suggesting he is about to do something quite difficult, inviting our complicity in some cosmic joke–and then does one simple forward somersault. He looks young and impish when he grabs Eylar’s and Strain’s heels and yanks them away from their orderly steps; they look unaffected, even oblivious. Choreographic allusions abound, underscoring the often neglected humor inherent in American ballet.

The third variation, a duet for Adelfang and Stewart, begins with an unusual lift, Stewart raising Adelfang so that she lies parallel to the floor, resting on his hands at waist level. His hands drop away; she seems to sweep across the floor. They lunge, melt in unison. Duell’s movement presents them as equals, as partners rather than star and prop. And while they may occasionally stray from the precise unison execution the choreography really wants, they never lose the apparent psychic bond it intends.

The finale erupts in beats, jumps, and changing patterns across the stage. In the reprise of the duet, one gorgeous lift becomes a leap, becomes a turn–and we have no idea just how it happened. Suddenly all six dancers’ performances catch fire–they dare to hold a balance or suspend a jump just a fraction of a second longer, show real attention to phrasing, articulation, all the nuances of the choreography and the score. In Octet, the relationship of movement to score is an intimate one, often literal in its accents, emphasis, and phrasing–a relationship suddenly clear in the finale. Just as at the beginning, we see a line of dancers coiling around itself with just one individual off to one side–perhaps a choreographic metaphor for the kind of ensemble Ballet Chicago may turn out to be.

The company’s premiere, Lisa de Ribere’s Orchesographie, a work of wit, virility, and stamina, features five men: Samuel Bennett, Rich Lyle, Joseph Malbrough, Stewart, and Ward. It is extremely entertaining and lively, recalling Jerome Robbins’s contribution to American ballet rather than Balanchine’s. The work is set to Alan Gout’s horn arrangement of Peter Warlock’s Capriole Suite, which alternately suggests the baroque dignity of Telemann and the modernist dissonance of Shostakovich. The choreography wanders back and forth between the same two poles.

The opening section begins with the dancers in a semicircle around the musicians. The movement, which accords with the music precisely and literally, is elegant and restrained, with just a momentary suggestion of masculine Rockettes. We see a number of choreographic allusions, some handstands, an odd, crablike sidling backward, hints of flamenco. The feet move ever so quickly, forming an uneasy juxtaposition with the dance’s moments of stillness and rendering them mere poses, static and obvious. The solos are all about eloquent arms, lifts, and elevation. Appropriately enough, Orchesographie ends with the dancers turning once again to look at the musicians.

There is something fresh and wonderful in the way these men relate to one another. Masculine images in the ballet tend toward one of two poles: the homoeroticism of contemporary European choreographers like Christopher Bruce and Jiri Kylian, and the men-drained-of-maleness we often see in Cunningham’s dances. Orchesographie combines gymnastics, athleticism, and an air of good-ol’-boy camaraderie. It recalls Robert North’s Troy Game, Dance Theater of Harlem’s great crowd-pleaser about jocks and jubilation; but Orchesographie is more interesting in choreographic terms, Troy Game in terms of technique.

Two of the three Balanchine works on the program–a chamber ballet version of the 1928 Apollo and the 1964 Kirantella–emphasize how crucial the dancers’ sense of timing is to Balanchine ballets, and do not show Ballet Chicago to advantage: Adelfang’s attack and musicality animated an otherwise lackluster performance of Apollo; Elise Flagg and Duell danced an eminently forgettable Tarantella.

Balanchine’s 1941 Concerto Barocco is, in itself, a marvel. Barocco is a demanding ensemble piece, and Ballet Chicago’s performance of it suggests that their ensemble–its naturalness and communicativeness–is what makes them so worth watching. Darling and just a trifle daring, Ballet Chicago is a welcome addition to the local dance scene.