The Joffrey Ballet astonishes in Zellerbach Hall

photo of ballet dancers
Cheryl Mann/Courtesy

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The Joffrey Ballet is in a league of its own.

On March 5, audience members filed into Zellerbach Hall to watch a company whose reputation is synonymous with excellence. Presented by Cal Performances, the Joffrey Ballet showcased a riveting program that spanned genre, mood and style.

The company opened with “Birthday Variations,” a series of short, playful dances set to Giuseppe Verdi’s lively opera-ballet music. A glittering chandelier hung over the stage as the tulle-clad ensemble fluttered through challenging footwork with ease — the kind of piece where you can have your cake and eat it too.

The dancers petered out for solos or duets; the solo “Variations,” in particular, exuded joy and levity through marvels of technical execution. Valeria Chaykina moved through the sixth variation with the fluidity of melting candle wax, ephemeral and incandescent. In their pas de deux, Amanda Assucena and Alberto Velazquez brought tenderness to their partner work — a mature moment of adoration to the youthful, energizing piece.

After the convivial candles blew out and the curtain fell on “Birthday Variations,” a sobering mood fell over Zellerbach. Plumes spilled from the rafters, and the lights shone on a single dancer lying on stage, shirtless with his figure contorted.

In its West Coast premiere, Chanel Dasilva’s “Swing Low” is an industrious, emphatic plea for forgiveness. “Swing Low,” set to music by Zoë Keating, oozed with drama. The cello melody undulated with urgency, punctuated strokes like a dwindling clock. The dancer was joined by a small group of descending angels, their wings expansive and muscles taut as they emerged from the upstage shadows.

The main dancer — the one bereft of wings — writhed under cool washes of blue light as he twisted and plunged through demanding, visceral choreography. The deeply immersive all-male number explored disgrace and atonement, tinged with religious imagery. Trust is precarious and allegiances are nebulous; yet, the dance burns a desperate ache for support and compassion.

The collective toll of isolation shone in “Under the Trees’ Voices,” choreographed by Nicolas Blanc with music by the late Enzio Bosso. A throng of dancers emerged in sparse gossamer-esque tunics spotted with purple embellishments, the latter detail initially quirking a brow for its resemblance to rot. Yet, the Joffrey Ballet transformed the Zellerbach stage. Large leaves levitated in an enchanting spell of scale, and the set seemed to change with seamless magic — a feat of collaboration and storytelling.

Bosso’s music smoldered with emotion, the lyrical passages buffeted by strings like a breeze swirling on a leaf’s slow descent. “Under the Trees’ Voices” plays on nature motifs to ruminate on the interpersonal consequences of pandemic-induced isolation, unfolding in four movements. The ensemble of dancers broke off into pairs, each radiating intense chemistry and a pent-up yearning for physical connection.

After intermission, desire took a playful turn in “The Sofa.” Choreographed by Itzik Galili, the number follows two attempts at seduction on a comically large yellow couch. Dylan Gutierrez starred in the number, sunny with machismo and showing off a delightful knack for slapstick.

Opposite him, Christine Rocas parried his advances, twisting and turning in haughty disdain. The air in Zellerbach loosened with laughter at the pair’s lively cat and mouse routine, erupting again at Yoshihisa Arai’s surprising, clever performance.

The night concluded with Yoshihisa Arai’s “Boléro,” an epic and angst laden piece where fan kicks seem to slice through air. The opening weaponizes silence, at once unsettling and intriguing. As the movement builds, tension coils only to rupture in synchronized choreography, an explosive expression of catharsis. 

“Boléro” epitomized the night’s urgent insistence on the vitality of dance. The Joffrey Ballet’s program unfolded in conversation with the pandemic, and after a year of isolation, the sheer sight of such a large ensemble, indulging in tactility and intimacy, felt breathtaking and warmed the cool night air with refreshing optimism.

Maya Thompson is the arts & entertainment editor. Contact her at [email protected].