Like a gust of fresh air, The Joffrey Ballet blew into Manhattan last night swirling up fond memories of itself. It may have been gone from its city of origin for two decades, but it has never lost its New York accent. Of course, this was not the same Joffrey that left Manhattan for Chicago in 1995 while fighting for its financial survival. Different dancers, different artistic director, and different mission mold it today. When it left, it had few full-length ballets – a wonderful Joffrey/Arpino Nutcracker, John Cranko’s much-admired Romeo and Juliet, that crazy Billboards – in its repertory which was mostly sustained by choreography of its founders who had their fingers on the pulse of American culture and who made the country’s heart beat faster by acquiring ballets by Twyla Tharp, Laura Dean, Charles Moulton, and important restorations such as The Green Table, Parade, and The Rite of Spring. Today’s Joffrey Ballet is a thriving hot bed of creativity in wondrous Chicago where the company has slowly been increasing its trove of full length ballets to include such gems as Ashton’s Cinderella, Ronald Hynd’s The Merry Widow, and John Neumeier’s Sylvia.
Being absent from New York for so long made the company’s visit seem like a first for many balletomanes, some of whom seemed amused by Haglund's own high anticipation of the company’s return home. They jest at scars that never felt a wound, as the line goes somewhere in Act II when Romeo points out to Mercutio that he doesn’t understand what Romeo is going through because Mercutio has never been in love. No jesting the morning after, however. Last night, the Joffrey dancers were utterly brilliant in their dancing and artistry, and their discipline honored their founders. It is next to impossible not to love this company no matter what it is doing on stage. (Haglund recalls the pleasure from many decades ago of watching the dancers sit on bleachers and hand-pass yellow Nerf balls at lightening speed.) Their energy, hot steam under pressure, combined with a monkish technical discipline has always made this company unique.
The evening length Romeo and Juliet by Krzysztof Pastor which the Joffrey Ballet has brought for its visit unfortunately doesn’t succeed in breaking new ground in ballet or as an updated interpretation of Shakespeare’s play. Three acts set in the 1930s, 1950s, and 1990s, respectively, come off mainly as a production gimmick. The choreographer’s vocabulary, which was rich in battement-enveloppé-to retiré, grand jeté en tournant in attitude, Grahamish and post modernist arm dancing and head swivels, was initially pleasing in its virtuosity but soon became tiresome when it did little to advance the drama. It certainly was not the language of the 1930s, 1950s or 1990s. While we could appreciate the choreographer’s message that the type of strife that Romeo and Juliet encounter repeats itself generation after generation, his message was conveyed more through costuming and cinematic effects than through choreography. However, even the costuming was problematic: the men wore pedestrian pants with jazz shoes while the women were in skimpier clothing with pointe shoes.
Usually, weak choreography coupled with unrealized concept will serve as a fatal flaw for an evening of ballet. But last night, there were performances of depth that made the evening worthwhile. As Lord Capulet, Fabrice Calmels dominated the stage in his tuxedo with tails whenever he appeared . His character’s authority was embedded mostly in his posturing, particularly in his long arms which conveyed the long arm of the Capulet law present in each of the three time periods. His character’s PdD with daughter Juliet in which he attempted to force her to choose a husband among a select group of men was the scene of this ballet that was most convincing and heartfelt.
As Juliet, Christine Rocas gave an honest account of her character’s dilemma. Her lovely feet and leg lines stretched our interest long past the expiration date on the choreography. Temur Suluashvili was a convincing Tybalt and looked like he could have stepped right out of Robbins’ West Side Story. Rory Hohenstein as Romeo danced the contemporary choreography with emphatic devotion, but could not overcome its insignificance. Yoshihisa Arai as Mercutio had the meatiest role in the ballet in terms of dance and drama. If he perhaps exhibited more showman quality than most of the company, he certainly had all of the technical skills to back it up.
Tonight’s gala program will include repertory pieces by Wheeldon, Possokhov, and Thatcher. We are especially interested in Yuri Possokhov’s contribution since his choreography entitled A Hero of Our Time is on tap for the Bolshoi Ballet in Cinema’s next transmission on April 9th.
The HH Pump Bump Award is bestowed upon Fabrice Calmels for his fierce portrayal of Capulet.