If you had to identify the most influential dancemakers currently working on the international ballet stage, it’s a good bet that the following three names would make it to the very top of the list: Wayne McGregor (resident choreographer of Britain’s Royal Ballet); William Forsythe (the New York-bred, Joffrey-trained dancer who was the longtime director of Germany’s Frankurt Ballet, and now heads the Forsythe Company in Germany); and Christopher Wheeldon (the Royal Ballet veteran who served as resident choreographer for the New York City Ballet, ran his own Morphoses company, and is now a fiercely in-demand freelancer).
So the Joffrey Ballet’s “Winter Fire” program, running Feb. 15-26 at the Auditorium Theatre, can only be considered a major coup, as it is comprised of formidable works by all three of these choreographers whose quite different styles share one common thread: a hybrid approach that melds the classical ballet and modern dance vocabularies in hugely demanding ways, while also addressing some of the darker undercurrents of contemporary life.
In many ways the most ambitious piece on the program is McGregor’s “Infra” (the Latin word for “below,” which is no casual choice). Created for the Royal Ballet, it debuted in London in 2008, and its current U.S. premiere by the Joffrey (realized, according to McGregor, only because of Joffrey artistic director Ashley Wheater’s “sheer tenacity”) marks the first time any company other than the Royal Ballet has performed it.
A work for 12 dancers, “Infra” is set to an original score by Max Richter that blends the intense lyricism of string players with industrial sounds. And it features something of a counterpoint “second ballet” in the form of a high-tech animation component by British artist Julian Opie that involves a 59-foot LED screen suspended above the stage on which pedestrian figures “walk” as the dance unfolds.
“Infra” is McGregor’s response to the 2005 terrorist bombings on London’s subway and bus system that occurred just a day after the city was named host of the 2012 Olympic Games. If you happened to see Steep Theatre’s recent production of “Pornography,” the Simon Stephens play, you will have some sense of the spirit in which this ballet was made, as ordinary life and relationships unfold just as life-altering events take place. Of course, in dance this happens in a less literal way.
“I’ve not seen the play, but ironically Simon and I both grew up in Stockport, England, and even went to the same school,” said McGregor, 41, whose self-created company, Random Dance, was one of the hot smaller ensembles in Britain during the 1990s, and whose appointment to the Royal Ballet in 2006 marked the first time that institution named a modern dance choreographer to the post. “Of course when something major like those bombings occurs in your country, there are shared preoccupations.”
McGregor recalled walking through an art gallery when the bombings occurred and said he didn’t really comprehend what had happened until he found the tube station he walked to closed, and buses and traffic at a standstill.
“There was then the awful realization that something like the tube [subway], which all Londoners just take for granted, had suddenly become something so awful,” the choreographer said. “And I knew I had to make a piece on the impact of that event, with the physical relationships of the dancers inferring its meaning.”
McGregor turned to Opie because “there is such a choreographic element to what he does with his animation — the way he reduces the line of the body to its simplest form. And we came up with the idea of the traffic of real people juxtaposed with what was going on ‘underneath’ — the actual underground activitiy of the tube. In addition, there is the duality of everything that goes on ‘underneath’ in people’s lives.”
McGregor, whose work displays his taste for sharp, intricate movement and extreme leg extensions (with the dancers in pointe shoes, but also sometimes barefoot and more grounded), describes Richter’s score as “haunting — achingly beautiful, but also astringent in its electronic elements, so it sounds like being in a city.” And he said that because Opie’s animation is controlled by algorithms (a mathematical process) no audience will ever see precisely the same piece. (“I’m a child of technology,” McGregor confessed.)
A great fan of Chicago, McGregor said his next project, for the Royal Ballet, will be an original fairy tale piece, and will involve a close collaboration with Audrey Niffinegger, the Chicago-based writer (The Time Traveler’s Wife), graphic novelist and visual artist.
Also on the “Winter Fire” program will be: Forsythe’s “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated,” an intensely abstract and virtuosic piece, set to the music of Dutch composer Thom Willems, that was created for the Paris Opera Ballet in 1987; and a revival of “After the Rain,” Wheeldon’s exquisite, breathtakingly intimate work to the music of Arvo Part that features three couples in its first section, a single couple in its second section, and two radically different moods.
NOTE: Just as the Joffrey performs at the Auditorium, a new documentary, Bob Hercules’ “Joffrey: Mavericks of Dance,” which debuted in January at New York’s Dance On Camera Festival, will receive its Chicago premiere. It will be screened at 8 p.m. on Feb. 18 (after which I will lead a panel), and Feb. 22, at the Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State. (Full disclosure: I have a very small role as commentator in the film.) For additional information visit siskelfilmcenter.org.
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