Joffrey Ballet’s “Winter Fire”

February 16, 2012
REVIEW by Time Out chicago
Zachary Whittenburg

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Stronger and more like an ensemble than they’ve looked in some time, 12 Joffrey Ballet dancers sink their teeth into Infra. The first American production of this 2008 piece by English choreographer Wayne McGregor lures them away from recent abeyance. Kara Zimmerman, with her striking features and hard-to-believe hyperextension, is present and knowable like never before and maybe even a bit dangerous. Young Amber Neumann, in a white camisole and plain black miniskirtlet, rises to the occasion of the angular ballet’s most challenging role (maybe not in a physical sense, but its surprise theatricality practically begs to crash and burn). In the opening men’s trio, Derrick Agnoletti, Rory Hohenstein and Aaron Rogers efficiently set the uncanny, biomechanical tone that’s made McGregor the toast of Europe, beneath a Julian Opie–designed frieze of urban pedestrians made of LEDs.

As in other McGregor dances, Infra imagines bodies as divining rods, devouring space in hungry pursuit of some semblance of meaning. Their fleet limbs, pushed to physical limits, often travel back and forth along one path before proceeding; McGregor scrubs dance like it’s raw video and scratches its rhythms like a DJ. Max Richter’s score toggles between city din and strings pleading from the pit, wonderfully played. The dancers overstimulate and give one another incompatible assignments.

To make dancing that looks this much like how we live, McGregor randomizes the codes of a classical language. (Carried in spins offstage by Lucas Segovia, Christina Rocas’s two bent, turned-out legs suggest an empty HTML tag: <> .)

While Infra’s ballet steps collide and mutate, cut in and out like cellular signals, William Forsythe’s in the middle, somewhat elevated is resolutely structuralist. Four years after the Joffrey staged an early Forsythe work to Aretha and Dionne, Love Songs, and premiered another, Square Deal, the American expat and some of the finest classical dancers of 1987 made middle in the studios of the Palais Garnier in Paris. A seminal experiment in post-ballet that’s lost none of its punch, middle is the sweat wrung out of a towel soaked in generations of expertise.

It and Infra are opposites despite their outward similarities: extreme extensions, minimal stagecraft and a cold, martial allure. McGregor force-feeds a paper shredder with ballet’s annals to create a blizzard; Forsythe debones ballet’s body to liberate its joints. “Winter Fire” could make this distinction more clearly.

The key ingredients of a great middle are made available in the Joffrey’s first take, staged by Glen Tuggle. For the power and phrasing, look again to Neumann, and see Rocas for curt eroticism. Graham Maverick and Rory Hohenstein show the best understanding of its complex torsions and systems. Victoria Jaiani gets the leg up. But no single dancer in the first cast fully embraces middle’s theories, so viewers unfamiliar with the piece aren’t likely to notice or learn them. (An alternate group featuring Zimmerman and Fabrice Calmels dances the piece at some performances.) That said, middle’s middle, from the “Hell’s Angels” quartet through Hohenstein’s solo and the men’s trio, looked like its old, brilliant self on opening night. The strict, loud electronic score by Thom Willems sounds as murderous as ever inside of a hallowed concert hall.

Between middle and Infra, the Joffrey revives its production of Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain (2005). The short two-parter benefits from having been danced before by the troupe, clear as crystal and confident. Paul James Lewis on prepared piano and violinists Carol Lahti and Paul Zafer bring familiar Arvo Pärt works to lush life, dialing back the melodrama and dialing up the intriguing dissonances. Their meter on opening night was slow, robbing the first part of some urgency, but this open pace pumped air into its closing duet that Calmels and Jaiani breathed deeply.904.