Category In the News

Hedy Weiss, WTTW

February 19, 2024

To get straight to the point: The Joffrey Ballet is soaring.

And it demonstrated both the technical brilliance and emotional boldness of its dancers this past Thursday evening as the company opened its 2024 season on the Lyric Opera House stage with “Studies in Blue,” a fascinating program of three modern ballets that explore love, loss and the human condition whether focused on isolation, longing, addiction or passion.

Coming on the heels of the company’s exceptional performances of Liam Scarlett’s “Frankenstein,” and its annual revival of Christopher Wheeldon’s beguiling version of “The Nutcracker” (that was created specifically for the Joffrey and Chicago audiences), this “Blue” program is just the latest reminder of how the company’s gifted dancers also happen to be outstanding actors. Add to this the fact that they are accompanied by the outstanding Lyric Opera Orchestra that is ideally led by Music Director and Conductor Scott Speck, who possesses a masterful understanding of dance. And then take note of the scenic, lighting and costume design for each of the three ballets on this program that was minimalist but highly effective in intriguing ways, and beautifully woven into the choreography.

Opening the program was “Yonder Blue,” a work capturing the relationship between couples (and one trio) as envisioned by the young and intensely productive British choreographer Andrew McNicol. Set to haunting music by Peter Greyson, it is danced against a minimalist backdrop with color-shifting lighting design (including a bit of smoke) by Jack Mehler.

Driving the performance was the ever-remarkable Victoria Jaiani ideally partnered by Alberto Velazquez, and Amanda Assucena partnered by José Pablo Castro Cuevas, with both a male trio, and a number of other ideally paired couples serving as a sort of chorus.

As McNicol describes his work in a program note, he took his inspiration from Siri Hustvedt’s book of essays, “A Plea for Eros,” and he was clearly intrigued by the psychological and physical notion of distance and closeness. And he ideally captured this behavior through the art of dance, as did the choreographers of the two works that followed.

Receiving its world premiere in a haunting performance by Anais Bueno and Hyuma Kiyosawa (backed by a chorus of 16 expert dancers) was the Belgian-born, British-trained choreographer Stina Quagebeur’s “Hungry Ghosts,” a work set to an ideal score by Jeremy Birchall that captures the obsession and emotional isolation of those addicted to opioids (such drugs as heroin, fentanyl and others). This is a subject rarely if ever dealt with in ballet, but Quagebeur’s work, as embodied by the superb Joffrey dancers, captures it in the most powerful way.

Bringing the program to a stunningly dramatic close is “Hummingbird,” the work of the fiercely creative British choreographer Liam Scarlett, who tragically died by suicide in 2021, at the age of just 35.

Set to “Tirol Concerto for Piano and Orchestra” — an unusually lush piece of music by composer Philip Glass — with John Macfarlane’s fascinating set (quite a steep slope that serves as a dramatic and challenging base for entrances), and with costumes (in white and shades of gray), it subtly but hauntingly suggests the complexity of human relationships.

It is once again Victoria Jaiani (expertly partnered by Dylan Gutierrez), who is riveting in every emotionally shifting move. And there also is exceptional work by couples Amanda Assucena and Alberto Velazquez; Anais Bueno and Edson Barbosa; Valeria Chaykina and Hyuma Kiyosawa; Yumi Kanazawa and Zachary Manske, and four additional couples.

If at all possible, do not miss this wonderfully modern series of ballets driven by dramatic movement, compelling music played by an exceptional orchestra, unusual design and, of course, exceptional dancers. And the response of the enormous opening night audience could not have been more intense or fully deserved.

“Studies in Blue” runs through Feb. 25 at the Lyric Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Dr. For tickets visit or call 312-386-8905.