Joffrey Ballet's Unique Voices was kind of scary. You should see it.

Joffrey Ballet's Unique Voices was kind of scary. You should see it.
Tulle by Alexander Ekman (photo: Cheryl Mann)

The premise of this week's Unique Voices mixed repertory program from the Joffrey Ballet highlights the individuals behind the choreography and their take on traditional ballet movements: James Kudelka, Alexander Ekman and Stanton Welch. But I thought the night had another theme: each piece portrayed (some expertly, some nearly so) the darkness in otherwise light and happy subjects.

The first is suitable for the weekend: Love. Stanton Welch's piece Maninyas follows a series of couples through the stages of falling in love. The mood and music start light and airy - the first few weeks, months or years of a relationship, when everything the other person does is perfect, he or she is untouchable, and your time spent together feels like walking on marshmallow clouds. Welch changes the environment quickly as the dancers peel back their emotional and physical layers and the couples start to discover the deeper, darker elements of their partners and the quirks and holes of their relationships.

As time goes on, the female dancers emotionally expose themselves completely to their partners, and the men carry the women, face up, legs spread, on their backs.  The choreography was very clearly grueling, a nice surprise since we are so used to Joffrey dancers making everything look impossibly easy. There were a few slip ups - one actual slip and a few near-falls, which, when you think about, were ironically perfect for this piece. Welch's point was for everyone to embrace this intangible thing (a relationship, dance) with all of its imperfections after its been seen or really known. Maninyas was perfectly imperfect. Anastacia Holden and Victoria Jaiani were stunning in their respective duets with Miguel Angel Blanco.

Moving on to the Man in Black. This piece was described in the program as "a celebration of American working-class grit and...Johnny Cash." But from the little bit I know about Johnny Cash, it's pretty clear he was a tortured man. Parts of James Kudelka's piece used the lighter bit of western kitsch - cowboy boots, plaid shirts, hokey dance moves - to show the stark comparison to Cash's troubles. The dancers constantly needed to be propped up, put down and held onto. When the dancers weren't hokeying about, the three men would depict a bar fight, or one would drink himself into solitude. Another violently shook while trying to hold on to the other dancers who would keep him physically (and I imagine emotionally) going.

The third piece was Alexander Ekman's Tulle. It begged the question: What do you think of when you think of ballet? Ekman jovially mocked the practice and revealed its cult-like environment, all while walking through a little bit of its history. The piece is a work of theatrics, but the choreography was stunning too. The theatrical aspect of Tulle added comedic beats to the whole thing - a smokescreen, jester costumes and over-the-top sound effects of a typical dance studio all made the audience laugh. But the final few minutes showed something greater. All the dancers took the stage together to a rhythmic, almost tribal beat, giving us a glimpse of a dark, forceful genre of dance that has evolved throughout the world for centuries. It gave us a look into a world that outsiders rarely see. The dancers live and breath ballet. They live and die ballet. That's some Black Swan-level darkness right there.

If you go to Unique Voices, you'll laugh, you'll get a drink at intermission, maybe you'll eat candy, you'll smile when you see someone you know. But the darkness of the night will creep up on you. You've been warned!


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