Category In the News

Hugh Iglarsh, Newcity

February 21, 2024

True to its title, the Joffrey Ballet’s current—and spectacular—evening of dance is a modern-day rhapsody in blue, exploring with skill and sensitivity the range of moods and meanings associated with that most richly evocative of colors. “Studies in Blue,” running through February 25 at the Lyric Opera House, features three works of approximately a half-hour each, all created within the last ten years, one a world premiere. The program attests to the Joffrey’s status as a world-class dance troupe that effortlessly melds classic and contemporary, producing works of revelatory beauty and power.

Choreographed by Andrew McNicol, “Yonder Blue,” which debuted at Joffrey in 2019, is the most meditative of the three ballets, a reverie on romance and yearning, all in a melancholic blue-gray key. The curtain rises upon five couples, garbed in neutral-hued costumes. They are relaxed yet tightly attuned to each other and to the slowly mounting energy of Peter Gregson’s music: A bass-driven adagio with a pensive feel, played by the Lyric Opera Orchestra and directed by Scott Speck.

A great coolness fills the stage as the bare walls, filled with designer Jack Mehler’s shifting gradations of color and brightness, echo the music’s somber tonalities. As the gently pulsing music continues, the gifted Victoria Jaiani, whose expressive flexibility is matched by her gymnast’s strength, dances a pas de deux with Alberto Velazquez that is sensuous yet subtly mournful, as though it were more about memory than present desire. The effect is simultaneously gorgeous, precise and atmospheric; the dancers seem to enter a timeless, internalized realm of pure feeling. It reminded me of Picasso in his Blue Period, translating the faces of those around him into icons of quiet sorrow.

“Yonder Blue” is a bravura dance performance and a powerful sensory experience, marred only by a too-sudden ending that lacked a strong closing cadence—as though the choreographer feared taking the audience too far out into the darkening blue horizon that bounds human existence, and which is evoked in this subdued, sadness-tinged ballet.

“Hungry Ghosts,” created by Stina Quagebeur, a Belgian-born choreographer based in England, represents a triumphal debut for the Joffrey. I feel fortunate to have witnessed the very first performance of this ballet, which bravely tackles the pitch-dark, painfully relevant subject of opioid addiction and its effect on the individual at the deepest level. The vibrant Anais Bueno, with her bright eyes and glowing smile, gives a moving performance as a young woman torn between her devoted partner—danced with sincerity and easy grace by Hyuma Kiyosawa—and the inner demons dragging her remorselessly toward self-dissolution. 

This hard-edged piece, with its operatic drama and cinematic stage effects mirroring the murky chaos of the woman’s drug-addicted life, is backed by Jeremy Birchall’s electronic-tinged music, which has a dissonant touch that suits the ballet’s dark-blue nature.

Where “Yonder” had a silky serenity, “Ghosts” is brusque and jagged, its movements riddled with distraction, hesitation, aversion and conflict. There are moments that come close to violence, as Kiyosawa tries fruitlessly to pull Bueno away from the shadowy, sinister figures swaying behind designer Mehler’s rear wall of gauzy scrims. The choreography has a rare harshness, as conventional lifts and clinches at the beginning of the dance gradually deteriorate into literal depictions of having a monkey on one’s back.

Dance has many faces, many moods, ranging from comic to romantic to tragic. “Ghosts,” in a duet where Bueno seems less than fully alive, her vitality drained away by a vampiric drug habit, is the first ballet I’ve seen that can only be described as a horror show. The soaring athleticism of these talented dancers, their vigor and finesse, makes the underlying grimness of the message all the more compelling.

“Hummingbird,” a 2014 ballet by the late British choreographer Liam Scarlett, is set to “Tirol Concerto for Piano and Orchestra” by esteemed minimalist composer Philip Glass. It’s the most cheerful and superficially pleasing, but least memorable of the three pieces. 

Glass’ score is atypical, with less of his usual propulsive, hypnotically repetitive riffs and more of a romantic, lyrical sensibility, like Liszt with a slight stutter. It eventually modulates into something closer to boogie-woogie, perhaps reflecting the hummingbird’s buzzing, rhythmic, cheerful energy.

The piece’s eighteen dancers fill the cavernous Lyric Opera stage, which is embellished with a drop cloth-like background with an abstract black-and-white design as enigmatic as a Rorschach ink blot. The secondary couples create intricate, synchronized patterns of flowing movement, given focus once again by the galvanizing and apparently inexhaustible presence of Jaiani, here partnered by the tall and powerfully built Dylan Gutierrez, who suits the star Georgian ballerina to a T.

Still, there’s a somewhat mechanical feel to the piece, with not much in the way of either narrative shape or emotional impact. The best moments involve ranks of dancers with their backs to the audience, emphasizing form rather than expression. And the smiles at the end seemed mask-like—whether deliberately or not, I couldn’t tell. The attempt at a happy, reassuring ending didn’t quite take in a piece in which technique outweighed artistic intent.

As a whole, “Studies in Blue” reminds us of the primal power of dance, demonstrating why it’s not just the most embodied, but also the most spiritual of art forms. Transcending language, with its abstractions and approximations, dance cuts right to the fundamental motions of the soul, cycling in breath-like rhythms between attraction and repulsion, love and fear, joy and grief, openness and guardedness. In the complex and distracting world we live in, a show like this, with its formidable depth and wholeness serves as a healing experience, bringing us back into ourselves.

The Joffrey Ballet’s “Studies in Blue” runs through February 25 at the Lyric Opera House, 20 North Wacker, (312)386-8905, Tickets start at $36.