The Torrent of Energy That Is Shelley Washington

May 11, 2008

I was lucky to be able to step into a rehearsal at the Joffrey Ballet run by Shelley Washington. She was setting Tharp’s Waterbaby Bagatelles (1994) on the company, and I happened to be in Chicago for a shoot. Washington’s exuberance, playfulness, demanding-ness and sheer aliveness coaxed the dancers into a knock-out studio performance. Her energy was contagious and people seemed to be bouncing off each other. (The studio was too small for this cast of almost 30, plus understudies, but they will move into a new building with larger studios this summer.) In this ballet, there is a series of fun show-off-y solos for the men, and these Joffrey guys really sank their teeth into them. And it’s funny (OK I admit that sometimes the humor is at the expense of the female gender, but I can cut Tharp a bit of slack.)

Waterbaby Bagatelles
is a ballet I have never seen but Oooh I wish I could. It is being performed on the Joffrey’s “American Moderns” series May 14 to 25. But I really enjoyed Shelley’s in-your-face directing: exhorting them to come further downstage (hyper-ly motioning as though she wanted them to come sit on her chest), or telling each one “I love you you,” or falling back in her chair and kicking up her legs when one guy did a realllly nice shimmy. After the run-through she told the dancers how great great great it was, and clapped Ashley Wheater, the new artistic director, on the back to make sure he told them a few times too.

The thing is, she ignited the kind of torrent of energy that’s needed to dance Tharp’s ballets. It’s about the individual efforts accumulating into a mass energy bordering on chaos that you see in the last sections of In the Upper Room or Surfer at the River Styx. Tharp’s choreography challenges dancers on many levels, and Shelley Washington’s shotgun responses and the sheer speed of her eye embody that multi-faceted challenge. For me, seeing this rehearsal was almost as good as the time Tharp’s own dancers mixed with Joffrey’s dancers onstage for the first (historic) Deuce Coupe in 1973.