Category In the News

JT Newman, Chicago Reader

February 20, 2024

Visual art and dance have a long history of coexisting in the same spaces. Consider the famed Robert Rauschenberg collaborations with Trisha Brown; the modern and spare sets designed by the “dream team” of Martha Graham and Isamu Noguchi; Salvador Dalí’s sets for the Ballets Russes; Comme de Garçons designer Rei Kawakubo’s creations for Merce Cunningham; and, more recently and locally, the influence of Marc Chagall’s America Windows on One Thousand Pieces by choreographer Alejandro Cerrudo for Hubbard Street Dance Chicago. Visual art and dance have inspired and intertwined throughout the decades.

Joffrey Ballet joins this rich tradition with Studies in Blue. Moments suggest echoes of painting: the color fields of Mark Rothko, the abstract meditative grids of Agnes Martin, and even some draped figures from paintings of the Romantic era. Wildly different subject matter hangs together as a cohesive whole through repetition, color, shade, and hue. The effect is not just visual, though there are certainly nods to paintings with various blues and grays in set, lighting, and costuming.

Unlike others in the spectrum, the color blue can have a range of meanings and feelings. From the conveyance of “truth, mercy, and love” to “sadness” to “peacefulness and tranquility,” and even “formality and conservatism,” blue can run the gamut from being innately calming to expressing deep mournfulness. Joffrey’s Studies in Blue explodes the multiplicity and chameleonlike nature of the color blue onstage in a sometimes contemplative, sometimes ominous, occasionally lighthearted evening of contemporary ballet.

The evening begins with Andrew McNicol’s piece Yonder Blue (2019). With music by  Peter Gregson (live scores performed admirably all evening by the Lyric Opera Orchestra, conducted by Scott Speck), the looping composition is reflected in music and movement onstage. Set on an abstract stage boxed in by three walls, the backdrop varies by section as a scrim is raised and lowered. Lights (in pink, golden peach, stark white, and pale gray-blue) and atmospheric fog (and possible cloudlike video projections) by Jack Mehler are used to demarcate the sections of the dance. Gorgeous extensions, lyrical partner work, and sensual and abstract melancholy characterize the piece—quick angular movements and a luscious looping contrast these.

Yonder Blue also has a disconcerting section that contrasts with the rest. A mechanical noise in the score (faint at first and growing louder) becomes an overwhelmingly eerie hum in this middle portion. This section feels vaguely futuristic or medical (at that moment, the blue in the costumes transformed into hospital scrubs for me). Because it was created in 2019, one can assume this section didn’t reference the recent pandemic. Still, it took me to the feeling of pandemic and post-pandemic as dancers performed in exact and geometric unison patterns, as one dancer stood in stillness. This section includes some lovely partner work and balances and counterweight work, as one dancer dips the other nearly to the floor in an extended arabesque penchée and then holds her calves in an extended cambré derrière as he sits on the floor.

While McNicol’s piece takes the audience on a journey from light to dark and back again, Hungry Ghosts, choreographed by Stina Quagebeur, is clouded in a somber atmosphere. This piece, dealing directly with the subject matter of the opioid crisis, shows the real effects of addiction as characterized by a relationship between a person with addiction, the person who loves them, and the shadowy world of narcotic use. In Buddhism, a hungry ghost or preta is a being whose hunger is a tormented desire that can never be sated.

Dancers Anais Bueno and Hyuma Kiyosawa beautifully portray the effects of addiction on a couple set against the ensemble background dancers, who serve as an inchoate world of ups and downs behind and in front of raised and lowered gauzy scrims. These background dancers abstract the way opioids can create highs and lows, with group lifts depicting Bueno climbing with her legs in the air and then being dropped back down. The group also typifies the effects of opioids with rhythmic rocking, blank expressions, and a trancelike unison that draws Bueno’s character in and out of its gravitational pull.

Light, shadow, and facial expressions are used to significant effect here, as are sound and Jeremy Birchall’s score. A repeated sound like a sharp match being lit, the use of a black background, and dancers in shadow (creating a uniform look and making indistinguishable the features of individual dancers) nod to the way that drug dependence can render people incapable of anything but servitude to themselves and their addiction. In particular, how the couple’s dances progress (from active, flirtatious, and engaged to desperate, grasping, and numb) reflects what this phenomenon does to connections between human beings and their loved ones. The piece feels gutting and avoids the cliches of redemption and the “happy ending” an audience would like to experience in narratives of these kinds.

Hummingbird, with choreography by Liam Scarlett and music by Philip Glass (Tirol Concerto for Piano and Orchestra), perfectly encapsulates the delight that is contemporary ballet, with its virtuosic and gorgeous dancing; its play with levels; and its contrast of legato sections with more playful, springy movements. It’s graceful and lovely with a lot of visual interest.

In particular, the set for this piece is a showstopper. Scenic design by John Macfarlane stands out with a sizable rolled-up backdrop and a sloped Marley floor. The backdrop—white with gestural black strokes cascading down from the flies (think: giant, thick, pencil-drawn, or ink-splattered Franz Kline)—bloused out at the bottom. This scrim, which appears to roll up and down (and, in moments, actually breathe), conceals and reveals dancers entering and exiting the stage, dancing up- and downhill on a sloped floor toward the back. The costumes, also designed by Macfarlane, underscore the approachability and delight in this work. Dancers in pin-tucked, short-sleeved midi dresses and button shorts and pants float by in various shades of pale blue, blue-gray, and lightest gray (almost white) as they magically lift, curl, and twist toward, away from, and around each other.

In one visually stunning moment, the choreography gesturally drapes six ballerinas across the top of the backdrop, as a pair dances a duet on the flat foreground. This moment, and many others throughout the evening, suggest—even openly connect and shorten—the distance between dance and visual art. It is lovely when an audience can feel the dancers’ love for the movement in a piece. It makes the heart full to watch them perform with authentic smiles; this piece is filled with that energy.

Overall, this program is an excellent example of contemporary ballet. The virtuosity and artistry of the evening, the thematic choice of “blue” as a subject, and the interwoven gestures and patterning of some of the gestures, moves, lifts, and curling nature of the choreography of the pieces created a cohesive whole. It’s a visually stunning evening with much energy and a study in contrasts. 

My only criticism of the whole piece was I expected a program called Studies in Blue to use a lot more variation of the actual color (in all its vibrant and wildly distinct permutations). The restrained palette suited the contemplative native of the night. (Indeed, I thought Hummingbird, with its blacks, whites, and grays, could have easily fit into an evening called Studies in Gray—but perhaps that’s too suggestive of other titles using the word “gray” of a more racy nature.) But this program offers much to appeal to fans of the Joffrey, ballet enthusiasts, and people interested in the intersections of visual art and dance.