Chicago Dance Review: UNIQUE VOICES (The Joffrey Ballet at Auditorium Theatre)

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by Lawrence Bommer on February 12, 2015

in Theater-Chicago


Winter can be wonderful in Chicago—well, if you’re safe inside the Auditorium Theatre for the ten performances of Unique Voices. The Joffrey Ballet’s three-work showcase of dynamically contrasted works by three inimitable choreographers is more than just a feat for feet. So outwardly diverse yet internally consistent are these very individual works, you might think that a new dance language just got written. These movements matter. They suggest special stories and trigger instant feelings from close encounters and visceral separations.

Maninyas_Anastacia Holden_Miguel Angel Blanco

The 1996 opener, Australian choreographer Stanton Welch’s “Maninya,” employs a driving score by Australian composer Ross Edwards and Welch’s own billowing, veil-like curtains to juxtapose five couples in contrasting colors. Cavorting in assorted pas de deux and pas de trois, they literally fall in love, shrugging, swaying, swirling and raising their arms in restless urgency, spurred by emotions that surge through every limb. Their furtive evasions followed by committed connections testify to the vulnerability of infatuation and the joy of giving up the game. The work’s fluidity confesses the lures of temptation but in these dance dialogues it’s the connections that count.

The Man in Black_Fernando Duarte_Joanna Wozniak__Edson Barbosa_Derrick Agnoletti (3)

A Chicago debut, “The Man in Black” is James Kudelka’s 2010 salute to Johnny Cash’s late blooming ballads. Four performers in dark country garb and cowboy boots—Derrick Agnoletti, Fernando Duarte, Edson Barbosa, and Joanna Wozniak—link up as they play variations on six “cover” songs by the troubadour of Folsom Prison. Their interactions stick to the folk vernacular as they interweave Western movements—square, swing, hoedown, line and step dancing—into a tangled series of complex intimacies. The anger of “Damn Your Eyes” contrasts with the bittersweet “Hurt” and the lost longings of “If You Could Read My Mind.” High-kicking, body-slapping, clog-pounding insouciance pulse through this romantic “chain gang” as they act out all countless combinations of three men and one woman yoked together by music and movement.

Tulle (2)

Finally and excitingly comes the U.S. premiere of Swedish choreographer Alexander Ekman’s “Tulle,” an insider’s 2012 look at the conventions and challenges of classical ballet. An extended apron covers the orchestra pit and rises and falls as needed, while the Auditorium’s huge side panels are raised up: The extensions and lifts vastly enlarge the dance area, essential because this sprawling work requires the entire ensemble in a swirl of all-consuming floor exercises.

Tulle_Victoria Jaiani_Temur Suluashvili

You sense the sheer subversion as the dancers coyly whistle the theme from Swan Lake. Voice-overs presented in pixelated videos on three constantly moving LED screens testify to the rigor and rewards of dancing en pointe, the origins of classical ballet in the Sun King’s own Terpsichorean performances (shown in stylized strutting), and the exhilaration of moving from technical skill to a graceful surrender to the art itself. Sequences, performed by the women in stiff tutus and the men in white tights, include a female duet, three couples in full flourish, a spirited clown couple in a delightful rehearsal (wryly observed by five balletomane tourists), and 12 ladies and 11 men erupting in same-sex heaving and hoofing. (Here the sheer pounding of feet on floors becomes a statement in itself.)

More than the elaborate inside joke that it first appears, “Tulle” is an amazing, multifaceted crash course in classical ballet as it’s forged into form, not always as prettily as the results deliver. It sums up so much.

Tulle_Miguel Angel Blanco_April Daly (2)

It’s right that this astonishing labor of love should play its part in an opening night tribute to the memory of beloved dance publicist Eric Eatherly, a complete gentleman who recently died–at only 35–in a car accident. To Chicago’s dance writers Eric’s glowing and unforced smile, captivating before every dance recital, was a “pre-show” as electric as anything that followed. We won’t forget it or him.

photos by Cheryl Mann

Unique Voices
The Joffrey Ballet
Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University
50 E. Congress Parkway
ends on February 22, 2015
for tickets, call 800.982.2787 or visit Ticketmaster
for more info, visit Joffrey

for info on Chicago Theater, visit

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