When the audience walked into the Joffrey Ballet’s open rehearsal in partnership with Cal Performances, the dancers did not turn their heads; their eyes were fixed on the choreographer, Nicolas Blanc. With his hands at the waist of dancer Fabrice Calmels, he tried out different ways to swing his body from side to side, then stepped back and watched as the other dancer, Victoria Jaiani, stepped into the space he had just left. They wove in and out like this for several minutes: Blanc testing things out, Jaiani reconfiguring his movements on her own body.
As Jaiani slid across the new dance floor in her pointe shoes, Blanc called out directions.
“Can you try this?” he asked, swinging his arm sharply up to frame his face with the sharp angle of his elbow, “like a shield.” Within a second, she appeared behind him like his shadow, her arm cutting the air above her head. From behind me, a soft but audible “mmhm” drifted involuntarily out of some of the other viewers in the room.
After the rehearsal, Blanc answered questions from the audience. “The principle of choreography,” he said, “needs to have conversation.” He talked about his thoughts during the rehearsal process, as well as the ideas that inform the whole piece.
According to Blanc, the scene was meant to evoke warriors preparing for battle. Blanc outlined a detailed narrative map of the piece, down to the way he had told Jaiani to look at her leg minutes before — not just a turn of the head, but “an observation or something that freezes in time before we attack again.”
Once Blanc revealed the ideas he was working with, the minute aesthetic changes he made in the rehearsal suddenly made sense. Abstract ballet can certainly be beautiful without narrative, but the open rehearsal drove home how much a dance viewer’s experience is enriched by some semblance of a story, however vague or temporary that story may be.
In Joffrey’s performance at Zellerbach Hall this past weekend, the strongest pieces were those that put some sort of narrative or idea within the audience’s ready grasp.
In the choreography Blanc presented, a strong emotional relationship stands in for an explicit narrative. A duet between Jaiani and Alberto Velazquez, “Encounter,” evokes the shifting relations between two people. The tender jazz saxophone was so central that it almost acted as a third character, dictating the interactions between the other two.
Justin Peck’s work, “In Creases,” suffered from its narrative paucity; it was abstracted beyond meaning. The two live pianists onstage brought Philip Glass’ music to the forefront, but the steady beat of the piano meant that the dancer’s balletic movements sometimes read more like center-floor combinations than choreography. The dancers executed the steps perfectly, but the limited choreography turned them into ballet automatons.
Peck’s capacity for crafting intricate geometric patterns was almost enough to make up for the lack of any discernible emotional content. The dancers’ formations breathed in and out, forming and reforming in constant motion. Yet the constant shifting that kept the shapes alive also kept them from developing — they blurred into surface devoid of content.
Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s piece, “Mammatus,” was similarly abstract, but the choreographic oddities and clever stagecraft gave the audience more to grab onto.
The piercing crack of LED lightning heralded the beginning of the dance as a blanket of fog moved across the stage so gracefully it almost seemed like the fog itself were choreographed.
Scattered throughout the choreography were bizarre head wobbles and pecks that kept present the aesthetic sense of some unnamed animal as the dancers melded into creature-like packs.
Several times throughout the show, the pace of the dancing, the tense violin score by Michael Gordon and the reddening stage lights built up an almost unbearable tension that dispersed instantly with a flash of lightning.
Even more accessible than Ochoa’s work was Alexander Ekman’s “Joy.” Occasionally, a ballet piece might produce a polite chuckle here or there, but “Joy” launched a cacophony of giggles and even some snorts.
While a piece about joy threatens cloying sweetness, Ekman’s interpretation was far too weird to be saccharine. The work was essentially dance theater — a rare and bold move for a company of Joffrey’s size and reputation. From poised ballerinas cathartically smacking their pointe shoes on the floor to the digitally altered voice bellowing snide, self-referential commentary — such as, “What if the piece is just 30 minutes of this?” — the performance was downright hilarious and delightfully strange.
Though it was silly, it was not trivial. Despite the huge cast, the dancers formed a community on stage and each fully committed to the absurdity. Though their actions were often nonsensical, their intentions were specific and clear. Ballet dancers can seem superhuman, but watching the dancers relish in fun was a reminder that there are actual human beings beneath all the layers of muscle and tulle.
Cal Performances and Joffrey’s partnership goal of community engagement through public programming is commendable. At the same time, if contemporary ballet is going to reach a wider audience, artists need to reach out as well by leaving in some echo of a narrative, however faint and abstract, for audiences to hear.