Category In the News

Lauren Warnecke,Chicago Tribune

February 16, 2024

Walking home Thursday night, standing at an intersection, a woman reached out to hand me a pink rose. My head was still reeling with images from the Joffrey Ballet’s “Studies in Blue.” Out of impulse and instinct I shook my head and said, “No thanks.”

“Take it,” she said, kindly. “We’re giving them away.”

This small, random act of kindness in what often feels like a cruel, selfish world was the perfect digestif to “Studies in Blue,” running through Feb. 25 at the Lyric Opera House. Joffrey’s annual mixed-rep program presents three stunners, including a world premiere from English National Ballet choreographer Stina Quagebeur.

Quagebeur’s post-performance career has been as storied thus far as her time was on stage, with nearly 20 works under her belt for the company that brought “Giselle” and “Creature” to Chicago. Quagebeur’s “Hungry Ghosts” sits in the middle of “Studies in Blue,” and is perhaps the bluest, in a manner of speaking. Backed by an extraordinary company of 16 of their colleagues, Anais Bueno and Hyuma Kiyosawa dance their way through a heartbreaking narrative about the perils of opioid addiction.

Knowing the theme, I kept looking for literal or gestural signs of addiction; fortunately, there aren’t many. Rather, “Hungry Ghosts” is an abstract journey that beautifully captures the grip and subsequent trauma drug addiction imposes on not just the addicted, but everyone around them.

Periodically, Bueno and the ensemble retreat upstage into shadows behind gauzy, translucent panels (by lighting and scenic designer Jack Mehler). That voyage stunts a sweet, precocious love story between Bueno and Kiyosawa, who endeavors to love her through all the ups and downs. Music by Jeremy Birchall — a blend of live orchestra and recorded tracks — is the perfect container for Quagebeur’s choreography. She does a fine job in the quieter moments, which find the ensemble teetering back and forth or trust-falling into sculptural overhead lifts in silhouette. But it’s a swirling cacophony that sweeps up Bueno and Kiyosawa in a blurry, unhinged corps de ballet that really captures the tragedy, trauma and abdication of will associated with addiction. Quagebeur thankfully does not opt for a happily-ever-after, as ballets are wont to do. She keeps it real.

“Hungry Ghosts” and its companions for the evening — a revival of Andrew McNicol’s 2019 “Yonder Blue” and the company premiere of Liam Scarlett’s “Hummingbird” — all create distinct, striking worlds.

Case in point: A gorgeous backdrop of black runny paint on white muslin (by John Macfarlane) literally glows under David Finn’s crisp, cool lighting in Scarlett’s “Hummingbird.” That drop is tucked under like a sail to reveal a raked ramp for the dancers to slide down, seemingly from an abyss. Visually, it’s miles from “Hungry Ghost’s” back 40, behind Mehler’s gauzy veils. But the sense of an unseen beyond, in the shadows, is a theme that permeates each of these pieces and provides a throughline to the evening.

Not that it needs one. Each of these studies holds up just fine on its own. But endeavoring to connect them is a worthwhile exercise. Together, they seem to say something about the journey through life — mystery and clarity, perils and joys, ugliness and beauty. You can be struck by tragedy in one moment and handed a rose in the next.

Created in 2014, “Hummingbird” was an early demonstration of Scarlett’s choreographic panache, not just in plotless ensemble work — demonstrated by Joffrey twice already in his 2013 “Vespertine” — but also in gorgeous pas de deux which oscillate between crisp classicism and envelope-pushing ingenuity. Set to Philip Glass’s “Tirol Concerto for Piano and Orchestra,” the blithe third movement is most in tune with the piece’s flight, flittering subject matter. But “Hummingbird” is fully human, beginning with Amanda Assucena and Alberto Velazquez in one of those aforementioned pas de deux and peaking with a breathtaking second movement highlighting Victoria Jaiani and Dylan Gutierrez.

Jaiani features prominently in “Yonder Blue,” too, an equally enthralling piece McNicol created for Joffrey five years ago. Images of water and sky come easily with “Yonder Blue,” thanks in large part to heavenly light, scenic and atmospheric designs, again from Mehler, and an enthralling score by Peter Gregson blending orchestra (led by maestro Scott Speck) with a recorded Juno synthesizer track. Surprisingly, this music was not created expressly for the dance, but it fits like a glove. Synth arpeggios accompany “Yonder Blue’s” bright opening passages before submerging into what seems like an underwater world, with sonar-like beeps and a bass drone you can feel through the Lyric’s floor in your feet. Yes, water and sky are natural metaphors here, but I think it’s deeper than that and ties into the whole human experience vibe of the night. In a program note, McNicol said he takes inspiration from Siri Hustvedt’s book, “A Plea for Eros.” It doesn’t read like Eros, Greek god of carnal love; no, not at all. Rather, McNicol pulls from Hustvedt’s description of “yonder” as a “word that wobbles,” implying a journey from here to there and the liminal spaces in this thing we call life. And that is magnificently clear in “Yonder Blue.”

Lauren Warnecke is a freelance critic.

Review: Joffrey Ballet presents “Studies in Blue” (4 stars)

When: Through Feb. 25

Where: Lyric Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive

Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes with two intermissions

Tickets: $36-$179 at 312-386-8905 and