Category Academy

Kathy D. Hey, Third Coast Review

The 14th annual Winning Works is an evening of fresh work and twists on classic techniques that will thrill dance audiences in the coming performances. The Joffrey Academy of Dance's Winning Works program brings new work from a diverse group of choreographers. This year, five extraordinary dancers from Brazil, India, Puerto Rico, Brooklyn, and Chicago are launching the next generation of choreography through the Joffrey Ballet. Short film clips before each dance showed interviews with the recipients of Winning Works. Each expressed gratitude and a sense of awe at being chosen to choreograph new work with Joffrey students who bring their A-game to get into the Joffrey Academy. This year’s winners are: Jainil Mehta, Martha Nichols, Manoela Gonçalves, Houston Thomas, and Chicago-based winner Xavier Núñez (recipient of the Zach Lazar Winning Works Fellowship).

Up first was Camellia by Xavier Núñez, who recently choreographed Cosmic Rhythms at the Adler Planetarium. Núñez is a member of the Joffrey Ballet who brings a flowing and ethereal touch to his entry. Camelia is a remedy for those climbing out of the long and dreary Chicago winters just as his previous work at the Adler was an antidote to the claustrophobia and confinement of the Covid pandemic. It was a beautiful and optimistic expression of how dance can heal and lift spirits.

Martha Nichols brought a sculptural vibe to Carried by Thought. Nichols has danced all over the world and the influence of her work in productions such as La La Land and Cirque du Soleil is evident. The choreographer's work is to express their emotions and feelings through a group of bodies. Nichols' choreography is an otherworldly experience that transfers thoughts into expressive movement and expands the potential of the body. It was a unique and palpable experience where I felt taken along with the movement of the dancers on the stage.

Houston Thomas began his journey at the Chicago Academy of the Arts and the Joffrey Academy of Dance simultaneously. His dedication to the art of dance has taken him around the globe and created dances for Juilliard, the Cincinnati Ballet, and as far-flung as Biarritz. Thomas' contribution is called The Return Studies II in honor of the meaning of homecoming or returning. The Return Studies II shows Thomas' love of classical ballet and his expansion of what en pointe can express. Here the toe shoes are used as a percussive accompaniment to an intense score by John Cage.

Manoela Gonçalves' Ocean was the most striking dance of the show. Gonçalves created this piece to work through personal grief. Ocean is a naturalistic and gripping journey through anger and acceptance. The dancers were doing battle with themselves, pushing away something from within. A featured dancer dressed in a voluminous black skirt was the expression of the height of keening and railing at a loss. Grief is not always about corporeal death. It can be a loss of anything that has deep meaning and somehow nourishes the soul. It was a piercing and beautiful dance that I think will become a classic piece in performances to come.

The finale by Jainil Mehta was Burning Bread(s), which was an indictment of consumerism and greed. It was also darkly whimsical using bread and toasters as props. This dance is an allegory of how there is enough to go around but there is always a faction of society that has to have more at others' expense. I loved the manic and athletic energy of Burning Bread(s). The dancers were clad in gorgeous flowing saffron attire that deceptively gave a Buddhist feel before the dancers frantically collected and redistributed bread. Like many big economies, only a few got the best bread while others endlessly pushed the toaster buttons. It felt like a mashup of Kafka and sinuous dancing. Mehta also composed some of the lovely Indian music.

Many kudos to the Joffrey Ballet Costume Shop for giving a professional finished look to the performances. The costumes are beautiful and fit perfectly. The Star Trek look in The Return Studies II was on point as were all of the costumes in each performance. It was a thrill to see how forward-thinking the Joffrey Ballet is by going to the sources of fresh and beautifully cultivated talent from this cohort of choreographers.