Joffrey Ballet Presents an Exquisite Evening of Russian Masters

Allegro Brillante - April Daily & Dylan Gutierrez - Photo by Cheryl Mann

This past Saturday at the Auditorium Theater, the Joffrey Ballet celebrated Russian choreographers and composers with a program entitled Russian Masters. The exquisite evening ran included ran the gamut from pristine choreography, to torrid love affairs, to the primitive power of ritual sacrifice.

The performance began with Allegro Brilliante a lovely, clean dance choreographed by George Balanchine to the music of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s unfinished third piano concerto. We especially enjoyed the performance by dancer April Daly and pianist Kuang-Hao Huang during the cadenza.  Daly effortlessly interpreted every nuance of Huang’s phrasing. In fact, the dancer and pianist seemed to feed off each other’s energy.

Joffrey - Adagio - Temur Suluashvili & Victoria Jaiani - Photo by Cheryl Mann

The Adagio provided a complete change of mood from the effervescent Tchaikovsky. Victoria Jaiani and Temur Suluashvili performed an extraordinary pas de deux, originally choreographed for them in 2012 by Yuri Possokhov. Backed by music from Aram Khachaturian’s Spartacus, this work drew us into the tale of a couple’s torturous love affair. Jaiani and Suluashvili’s performance was sensuous and tragic, with a hint of danger.

The first half of the evening concluded with Bells, also choreographed by Possokhov, with music of the same title by Sergei Rachmaninoff. Originally a choral concerto, this performance featured an arrangement for two pianos beautifully played by Mungunchimeg Buriad and Kuang-Hao Huang. Six dancers performed in different combinations during this eight-section piece. The highlights of this work were the two pas de deux. April Daly and Fabrice Calmels danced an entertaining love story in which the woman leaves the man bereft at the end. Jaiani and Suluashvili embarked on their second love affair of the evening in which the duo, who tries to resist each other’s charms, eventually melts into a much-wanted kiss at the end.

Bells - Rory Hohensetin, Anastacia Holden; photo by Cheryl Mann

After intermission, it was finally time to celebrate the 100th anniversary of for Igor Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring), choreographed by Vaslav Nijinsky. Contrapuntist and I have both loved the Rite of Spring since college. I relished the opportunities to play the work during my undergraduate and graduate years. Contrapuntist first heard the piece in his freshman music history class, and it forever changed his perception of classical music. Anyone who enjoys this piece has probably tried to imagine what the ballet would look like. My mind is a fertile playground, but this performance was beyond anything I could have imagined.

The Joffrey’s reconstruction of the original work made it easy to understand why Parisian audiences rioted at its 1913 premiere. Every aspect of the Rite was the antithesis of classical ballet. The dancers jumped and stomped with heavy, audible steps. The motions were angular and turned in. The dancers wore primary-colored, loose dresses and pants; there were no tutus or tiaras anywhere in this brutal work.

But the choreography and costuming fit with the music as perfectly as a foot into a ballet slipper. This work portrays an ancient Russian ceremony in which a young girl dances herself to death. Of course the music is strange and complex. Of course the motions are heavy, vigorous, and angular. Of course the costumes are primitive. It wouldn’t make sense any other way.

The Joffrey Ballet Ashley Wheater, artistic director The Cleveland Orchestra conducted by Tito Muñoz,  with Joela Jones, piano    GOULD - Interplay  ADAMS - Son of Chamber Symphony KHACHATURIAN - Adagio STRAVINSKY - The Rite of Spring

This past Saturday night’s journey into pagan Russia began with the exotic solo impeccably performed by principal bassoonist Collins Trier. The opening wind chorale created a soundscape of mysterious animals whooping and howling at each other. Then, the curtain rose to reveal four circles of motionless pagan characters.  A 300 year-old woman hunched over in a knock-kneed position while clutching a bundle of sticks. A group of men in animal pelts and peaked hats leaned towards each other. Women in blue dresses lay on the floor, arms outstretched in obeisance. Long-haired young men wearing white knelt near the rear of the stage. Three maidens in red squatted in the foreground.

The passionate cries of the wind instruments juxtaposed against the stillness of the characters built an ever-increasing sense of tension. Finally, the energy exploded into the irregular pounding of “The Harbingers of Spring”. The men in hats jumped in time with the beat.  Gradually, each group of came to life until the entire stage pulsated in a primeval frenzy. The pounding of their feet sometimes emphasized the rhythm while at other times added syncopations to the already complex orchestration.

The pagans celebrated spring with games such as jumping over sticks and mock fighting. Finally, an Old Sage limped onstage with the assistance of men in peaked hats. He slowly knelt down to kiss the ground, and after a moment of stillness, everyone erupted into the frenetic dance of the “Adoration of the Earth”. When the curtain finally came down at the close of Part I, my heart was pounding in my chest.

In the second part of the ballet, a group of maidens danced playfully in a circle. Suddenly, one girl stumbled to her feet. The game of natural selection had appointed a “chosen one” (danced by Elizabeth Hansen) for sacrifice. The maidens hurled the chosen one into their midst. She froze in an awkward position with her head cocked to one side, feet turned inwards, hands dangling, and eyes wide with terror. The maidens’ formerly graceful movements transformed into violent leaps and punches. Bearded men and ancestors in bearskins entered the scene and stalked around the chosen one. At the end of the dance, everybody left the circle except for the men in bearskins. They twirled around the chosen one until she suddenly leapt into action. The sacrificial dance had begun.

Elizabeth Hansen presented an amazing portrayal of the possessed young woman while staying perfectly in sync with the music’s complex rhythms. She spastically jumped, swiveled, and slapped her palms against the floor.  During the moments when the spirit loosened its grip, she stood wide-eyed and trembling with fear. Her body eventually began to give out, and she collapsed to the floor. The men in bearskins swooped in and raised her body up to the sky as the orchestra emitted a triumphant whoop to end the ballet.

Contrapuntist and I found it deeply satisfying to finally see the storyline put together with the music we’ve loved for so long.  After seeing this ballet, we felt we walked away with an even greater appreciation for the score.  Bravo to the Joffrey for an exquisite evening of dances set to the Russian masters.

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