The Joffrey Ballet and its very Contemporary Choreographers

The Joffrey Ballet and its very Contemporary Choreographers
Crossing Ashland ft. Matthew Adamczyk & Amanda Assucena - Photo by Cheryl Mann

The first thing you learn in any “critique” class is that there’s a difference between critically good and crowd-pleasing. In fact, sometimes they are all but opposites. When the critic and the average audience member do find common ground, it typically ends in pop culture phenomena. Take for instance, “Game of Thrones.” Critically acclaimed. Overwhelmingly crowd-pleasing. (APRIL 6TH WHO’S WITH ME?)

You might have guessed by the title of this post that I’m going to tie this concept into the Joffrey Ballet’s Contemporary Choreographers, which opened last night at Auditorium Theatre. You are correct.

I, along with anyone who is awake/alive/breathing, have long touted the Joffrey as one of the best companies in the world… Because it is! Artistic Director Ashley Wheater’s ingenious ability to produce shows that entertain audiences and often impart some sort of wisdom or provoke thoughts outside everyday ones is something to be celebrated and recognized. Combine Wheater’s vision with some of the most talented dancers on earth, and no one is surprised by the Joffrey’s continued success and longstanding history as the premiere contemporary ballet group in the U.S. With all of that said, is it possible to dislike something that the Joffrey puts on?

One of the repertory pieces from Contemporary Choreographers is Christopher Wheeldon’s Continuum. I did not like it. I don’t doubt Wheeldon’s masterful ability to choreograph—I’ve seen and enjoyed his other pieces, including Morphosis—but this one was distracting and overthought. The choreography itself wasn’t the problem; it was the dizzying score (by Gyorgy Ligeti) that accompanied it. The piece is described as “a stunning abstract rendering of music into movement and patterns.” It certainly was abstract, but I found it more of a sensory attack than stunning.

Luckily the rest of the mixed rep was a delight. Local Choreographer Brock Clawson premiered his work with the Joffrey, Crossing Ashland. The Chicago street served as a metaphor for a barrier to new parts of our lives. The dancers are shown first as pedestrians in street clothes, then stripped down to neutral leotards. I like this description best: “Crossing, the dancers show us what we look like; dancing, they show us the enormity of what we feel.” Indeed! Joanne Wozniak and Shane Urton were stunning in their duet.

The closing number, Episode 31 (Alexander Ekman), was a quirky group piece that had an industrial feel—exposed lights and moving floor mats—that used rhythmic and tribal music peppered with the dancers’ chants and yells. It was the “fun” piece of the night, and, with its urban feel, brought us full circle back to Crossing Ashland and its city setting.

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