BWW Review: THE JOFFREY BALLET Performs in NYC for the First Time in Over 20 Years
The Joffrey Ballet is back on the boards in NYC for the first time since the company decamped to Chicago in 1995. At Lincoln Center's Koch Theater from March 29th to April 2nd 2017, the troupe founded by Robert Joffrey and Gerald Arpino in 1956 and now under the artistic direction of Ashley Wheater offers a new version of "Romeo & Juliet" choreographed by Krzysztof Pastor, as well as a one-evening Gala on March 31st.
There have been several iterations of "Romeo & Juliet" to the iconic Prokofiev score over the years, but Kenneth MacMillan's 1965 ballet has always been the gold standard for me as well as for many balletomanes. On March 30th, listening to scattered snippets of the score while The Joffrey Ballet Orchestra: Members of the Chicago Philharmonic warmed up brought to mind unforgettable moments from MacMillan's work. I fervently hoped that what was in store for the evening would be as powerful as those treasured memories. I was, unfortunately, disappointed for the most part. The dancing was superb, but the rehashed story line by Dramaturge William Bruls is no match for Shakespeare's time-honored tragedy. A program note explaining that the star-crossed lovers would first be seen in Italy of the 1930s and then in the 1950s and 1990s sounded intriguing, but in fact for me the conceit doesn't work because it chops up the trajectory to the point that it's difficult to follow.
That said, there were definitely highlights. Among them, the "balcony scene", danced to some of the most passionate music ever written, does work as a contemporary pas de deux. I had to push the MacMillan scene out of my mind, especially when the score so clearly calls for Juliet to run up the stairs at the end before Romeo scales the wall to get one last kiss, but I succeeded. Pastor has made a more athletic, almost tempestuous, pairing for today's virtuoso dancers and I appreciate that accomplishment. An aside: The superbly trained members of the current Joffrey Ballet are largely from the feeder school, Joffrey Academy of Dance Chicago. An ad in the Playbill pointedly states "Only in Chicago", a veiled reference to the fact that the Joffrey Ballet School, founded in 1953 and still in New York, is no longer affiliated with the company.
The final scene of Pastor's "Romeo & Juliet" is a triumph in which the double suicide becomes a heartbreaker for the ages. As the warring Capulets and Montagues carried their deceased off stage in opposite directions, the audience let out a poignant and collective gasp. I'll admit that tears were trickling down my cheeks.
On Thursday, the Gala was short and fairly sweet: one hour and 15 minutes with no intermission. The three ballets on the bill were presumably meant to give the New York audience a taste of the Joffrey's decidedly au courant repertoire. First up was "Bells", with choreography by Yuri Possokhov to seven piano compositions by Sergei Rachmaninoff. A program note let us know that Possokhov refers us to this quote from W.H. Auden: "Each lover has a theory of his own, about the difference between the ache of being with his love and being alone." Five couples embodied Auden's observation with varying movements and lifts as the dancers took the stage separately and together. Pianists Grace Kim and Kuang-Hao Huang were excellent.
The second piece, "Body of Your Dreams" with choreography by Myles Thatcher to a whimsical vocal score by Jacob Ter Veldhuis is a tongue-in-cheek romp about society's obsession with exercising in order to sculpt a perfect body. I gave myself over to having fun watching the antics, in particular when set pieces were turned around to reveal wall-size mirrors. This ballet is not a great work of art, but it's enjoyable and that's perhaps enough.
Closing the brief evening was Christopher Wheeldon's 2007 "Fool's Paradise" to the music of Joby Talbot played live by Florentina Ramniceanu on the violin, Judy Stone of the cello, and Grace Rose Kim at the piano. The cast of nine dancers on a warmly lit stage and in spare costumes moved through evocative pairings and trios and tableaux that ended with the entire ensemble being showered by glittering gold petals. There is no story line as such, yet I felt that Wheeldon was urging us to explore the nuances and variety of human relationships.
"Romeo & Juliet", presented by the Joyce Theater, continues the run at Lincoln Center's Koch through Sunday, April 2nd. Catch it if you can. Here's hoping another two decades won't pass before the Joffrey once again graces a New York City stage.
Photo by Cheryl Mann