Christopher Wheeldon's Fool's Paradise Credit: Cheryl Mann

For the past 60 years Joffrey Ballet has been regarded as one of the best ballet companies in the country, and its classical style has always stood out significantly in Chicago, a city where there seems to be a jazz dance studio on every corner. But instead of spending the landmark anniversary reflecting on the historic work that has been performed over six decades, Joffrey instead opens its season with “Millennials,” a show of premiere works choreographed by contemporary ballet’s “next generation” of artists.

For the past few years there’s been a definite shift in the dance company’s aesthetic, likely stemming from Ashley Wheater taking over as artistic director in 2007. As a ballet purist, it’s sometimes difficult for me to stomach conceptual pieces over a good old-fashioned performance of Giselle, but with “Millennials” the choreographers managed to create something exciting and modern while still honoring the classical sensibility that gave Joffrey its start. 

The performance featured Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s Mammatus, Myles Thatcher’s Passengers, and Christopher Wheeldon’s Fool’s Paradise, three singular works all set to the sound of frenetic strings. And while each piece was completely different conceptually, they all shared two simple traits that make ballet what it is: beauty and sadness. There’s a reason that “The Dying Swan” from Swan Lake is one of the most famous dance solos of all time; when done correctly it deftly captures physical beauty of what a dancer is capable of while oozing with overwhelming emotion. Each piece in “Millennials” has its own dying swan moment.

Mammatus took shape as a flock of crows in a thunderstorm flowing across the stage. Male dancers lifted their female partners into contorted holds that would cause a normal person’s hip to immediately pop out of place, but Joffrey’s dancers brought an easy fluidity to each move. The second piece, Passengers, involved a more literal story of nine people’s entangled lives on a train ride. Where the first piece highlighted more technical dancing, this one relied on emotions to drive the dancing, much of which involved impressive prop work with suitcases.

While both those works were lovely, the real showstopper was Wheeldon’s Fool’s Paradise. Grounded in simplicity, it beautifully showcased the skill of each dancer, and as for the ballet’s emotions, well, let’s just say I had something in both of my eyes throughout the entire piece. A glittery rain fell in the background during the softest moments when the dancers would slowly raise their legs into arabesque, extending every bit of energy beyond the final inches of their toes. It was in these moments, with such simple movements so eloquently executed, that I couldn’t help but think how great it must be for these young choreographers to have access to Joffrey dancers; based on this performance they seem capable of anything thrown their way.

If “Millennials” is a taste of things to come, then the future of Joffrey Ballet is bright and beautiful. 

“Millennials,” 9/18-9/20: Fri 7:30 PM, Sat 2 and 7:30 PM, Sun 2 PM, Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress,, $32-$155.