After more than a decade away from Zellerbach Hall, the Joffrey Ballet’s performance on Saturday night (put on by Cal Performances) began with an empty stage. Regal red curtains hung in the background, recalling the stately grand ballrooms found in the novels of Jane Austen — a place where men and women met for highly ornate courtship rituals and programmed, but limited contact. The dancers sweep onto the floor, they stand in two rigid lines (males on one side, females on the other) and the show begins. From that moment on, the intricate choreography, the passionate plies and provocative scenes of the three ballets completely enthralled with a mesmerizing journey through ballrooms, wartime and intimate moments both light and dark.
The first performance, Edwaard Liang’s 2008 ballet “Age of Innocence,” is the most recent and possibly the most accessible. As mentioned earlier, it is a dance based on the aristocratic world of the Regency era. The men bowed to the women; the women curtsied to the men. As the dancers weaved in and out of this polished web, the score — comprised of clips by Philip Glass and Thomas Newman — heightened the intensity with an urgent undercurrent of striking violins. Slowly but surely, this became not a dance about polite postures, but a high stakes battle between the rigid choreography of public duty and the loose, sensuous grace of personal rapture. In a particular pas de deux entitled “Obey Thee,” dancers Victoria Jaiani and Fabrice Calmels embodied this conflict with a series of leaps and bodily contortions so effortlessly natural they challenged the viewer’s very ideas of innocence and physical love.
Calmels and Jaiani return to the foreground for the second ballet — Christopher Wheeldon’s “After the Rain.” Split into two parts, the first began much like “Age of Innocence.” The lines, of three men and three women dressed in somber gray, are geometric, carefully constructed and harsh. The dancers appeared almost akin to automatons — going through the motions of technical precision with minimal sentiment. Set to the frenetic sound of Arvo Part’s “Tabula Rasa,” the moves suddenly changed direction. There were leaps going backwards and feet that seem to be floating on air. The stage went black before a brilliant orange screen emerged. Then, there’s Calmels shirtless and Jaiani in nothing but a muted pink leotard. They upped the ante from “Age of Innocence” and let their emotions dictate their fluid and breathtaking movements to the delicate yearning of Part’s near-ten-minute opus, “Spiegel im Spiegel.”
Kurt Jooss’ antiwar epic, “The Green Table,” rounded out the show. Here, the renowned versatility of the Joffrey Ballet truly shined. Created in 1932, Jooss’ ballet is less abstractly emotional than it is a painfully vivid theatrical expression of the hypocrisy, love, loss and futility of war. As the skeletal Death, dancer Dylan Gutierrez manipulated not only the space before him, but the rest of the cast and audience alike with his menacing stare and purposeful execution. The wicked faces of masks worn by the Gentlemen in Black, representing the politicians and bureaucrats of war, haunted the crowd as the dancers gesticulated madly. The look of sheer sadness on the faces of April Daly and Anastacia Holden as the Old Mother and Young Girl captivated with utter terror amid the plaintive plucking of the two live pianos
In 1967, the Joffrey Ballet became the first American company to perform “The Green Table.” After 46 years, the ballet is still as powerful as ever. Using pistols with blanks, the show went out with a literal bang — capping a collection of emotionally vibrant and physically potent pieces both old and new.
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