Joffrey Ballet explores many takes on classical form in Zellerbach Hall showcase

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The Joffrey Ballet, a Chicago-based company, brought its signature mix of contemporary and classical ballet to Zellerbach Hall last weekend with four pieces from both the Joffrey and the New York City Ballet. 

The first performance of four was titled “Commedia,” set to Stravinsky’s “Pulcinella” score and choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon. The program evolved from transparent commedia dell’arte, with the dancers spinning around in capes, masks and argyle tights, to something more commedia-inspired, borrowing the jubilance and jocularity of commedia dell’arte while keeping the costumes more striped-down and simple so as to better accommodate the ballet featured in the piece. 

The topics of the pieces ranged from friendship to antagonism to romance, mirroring several commedia tropes. The music helped to further illustrate the story being told while the dynamics shifted, transitioning into something more mischievous.

“Bliss!,” a piece choreographed by Stephanie Martinez and inspired loosely by the life of Mildred and Robert Bliss, opened with six men dancing in nothing but soft, gray pants. The performance emanated playful eroticism as the male dancers shook their shoulders and smirked at the audience. The boys were interrupted when women entered the dance, first a dancer in a pink, bedazzled tutu and then, later, one in blue. With their showy displays of femininity, they provided an attention-grabbing foil to the men onstage. What resulted, however, was less a battle of the sexes and more a harmonious coexisting, with the dancers coming together to play off of each other.   

The third piece in the ballet was “Beyond the Shore,” a co-commission with Cal Performances choreographed by Nicolas Blanc. The piece, set to the score of Mason Bates’ “The B-Sides” as well as to some original soundscaping by Bates, evolved as the choreography progressed. It began as a naturalistic portrait, with dancers falling backward and forward to mimic waves in ethereal, soft clothing. The piece was constructed by Blanc with the hope of creating six individual short stories, and it went about accomplishing just that. In one movement, the dancers moved as a giant cog, guided entirely by the music. The music, however, then shifted and became increasingly mechanical. In another movement, the dancers’ clothes were tightly constructed and geometric, and the tension in the dance increased. At times, the music was bridled by loud drumming or walkie-talkie noises, with dancers held aloft in sharp positioning almost as if they were weapons. 

In a diversion from more traditional classical ballet, in “The Times are Racing,” the dancers wore streetwear designed by Opening Ceremony, with the piece integrating in elements of hip-hop and tap for a more contemporary number. Instead of ballet shoes, the dancers wore white sneakers, keeping their hair loose and signifying the categorization of “sneaker ballet.” 

As opposed to the classical compositions from the previous numbers, for “The Times are Racing,” the dancers danced to heavy techno music, computer sounds and an electric score composed by Dan Deacon. The dancers swarmed together, pulsing as one collective being. The outfits became part of the piece, with the climax of one section of the dance coming when dancers moved onstage behind jackets that they then put on the other dancers. 

Each of the pieces staged by the Joffrey Ballet, whether it be contemporary or classical, centered around the incredible skill and precision of the dancers and choreographers. 

Contact Kate Tinney at [email protected]. Tweet her at @katetinney.