The Joffrey Ballet

February 18, 2009

The Joffrey Ballet
February 18–March 1, 2009

Auditorium Theatre, Chicago

Reviewed by Wendy Perron


Photo by Herbert Migdoll. Dancers surround The Chosen One in
The Rite of Spring.

to watch an excerpt from this chilling work.

It’s been said that Nijinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps changed the course of dance in the 20th century. Choreographed to Stravinsky’s pounding score, it threw the Parisian audience into a frenzy when it was first performed in 1913. Joffrey artistic director Ashley Wheater wisely preceded this revival with a video that prepared the current audience for the turned-in stance, bare feet, and primitive quality of the movement. With 42 dancers, a full orchestra, and the Roerich costumes and backdrop (plus canvas floor), the piece looks both brazen and poetic. Groups of ancestors wearing bearskins and maidens with long swinging braids huddle in circles, imploding with irregular rhythms that blot out any awareness of the audience. Sharp, two-dimensional gestures, often with elbows jutting, recall Egyptian bas-reliefs. These shapes are animated by a ritualistic fervor, making this an unforgettable experience.

The current revival is almost as exciting as the 1987 version, again reconstructed by Millicent Hodson and art historian Kenneth Archer. It’s a fantastic, brilliant, piece that bears multiple viewings. Sometimes the dancers are eerily calm and other times they prance madly as though the ground itself is alive. We see archetypal figures like An Old Woman of 300 Years, who toddles from side to side while carrying a bundle of twigs. An Old Sage with a long white beard is lowered so he can kiss the ground. Then he looks to the heavens, at which point all hell breaks loose and every individual furiously flails every limb.

The amazing thing is that the dance and music progress together, in all their complexity and oddness. When a heavy, dragging feeling bursts into skitteriness, it’s as natural as thunder and lightning. The power of the current Joffrey troupe came across, though they seemed a shade less intense than 22 years ago.

The long stillness of The Chosen One, with one shoulder held to her ear, is one of Nijinsky’s stranger decisions. Joanna Wozniak sustained her energy in this role, jumping wildly within the precise geometric shapes until the chillingly abrupt ending, when the group raises her exhausted body up.


The program opened with Kettentanz (1971), Arpino’s exercise in petit allegro. This well crafted ballet had 12 dancers prancing to Strauss polkas with great panache and too-fixed smiles. But in the slower, deeper solo called “Schnofler Tanz,” Kathleen Thielhelm broke through the surface with a deeply felt performance. Tomm Ruud’s Mobile, a novelty from the same era, was a trio of shifting lava-lamp shapes to music by Khachaturian that was too dramatic for it. The poignant “Hand of Fate” duet from Balanchine’s Cotillon (1932) was preceded by a quartet of young women in gorgeous fruit-colored tutus—making me curious about the whole ballet. But all three, in their mildness, helped set the stage for the radical break that is the Nijinsky/Hodson Rite of Spring.


Missed The Joffrey’s
Rite of Spring? Watch a video excerpt here.