“Modern Masters” Review- The Joffrey Ballet’s Winter program 2018

The Joffrey Ballet, in "The Body of Your Dreams"; photo by Cheryl Mann
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The Joffrey Ballet is currently presenting “Modern Masters” from February 7-18, 2018, at The Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University, 50 E. Congress, Chicago. There are 4 pieces on the program, danced to electronics and live music provided by The Chicago Philharmonic, with 2 well-established works bookending 2 newer pieces, one a world premiere. The program as a whole creates a vision of Americana, it’s strength, invention, casual flair for living, whimsy.


1) The Four Temperaments; Choreographer: George Balanchine © The George Balanchine Trust; Music: Paul Hindemith

 Joffrey Premiere

The Four Temperaments, considered an early experimental work of Balanchine’s, with a commissioned score by Paul Hindemuth, is a long dance markedly different in feel than those that comprised the middle of the program, but almost a harbinger of the last piece; Robbins was directly influenced by Balanchine. It is a medley of classical movement with minimalist style, loosely inspired by the ancient Greco-Arabic physician Galen’s physical/psychological concept that there exist 4 different human styles or temperaments- melancholic, sanguinic, phlegmatic and choleric- one will come to the fore in any individual. The ballet is comprised of 5 parts, a theme and 4 variations, set to Hindemith’s 4 variations, based upon these “humors”; however Balanchine himself noted that they “were merely points of departure for the creation of abstract music and dance.”

Anais Bueno and Aaron Renteria in “The Four Temperaments”

The opening theme presented three unusual pas de deux in which a male dancer sustains a female dancer as she pirouettes; the first is a pirouette on point, in the second the ballerina had slightly bent knees, in the third she is rotated with flexion.

In “Melancholic”, a man burdened by the weight of the world tries to leap and falls to earth; neither can he stand, but wanders into backbends. Joined by women, he begins to surface, succumbs to their attack.

In “Sanguinic”, a man and woman dance with distinguished elegance; she is lifted, they spiral in and out of center stage.

In “Phlegmatic”, the man cannot act; he can’t extend his arm, needs to use a hand to raise a foot.  He is joined by 2, then 4 more women; they all collapse before ascending to a lovely dance together.

In “Choleric”, the finale, the ballerina flings about in anger; her male partner cannot touch her. Ultimately, however, all the dancers reach toward salvation; four men lift four women high, as the Philharmonic lifts the music into a major key.

All of the Joffrey dancers held their own in this enduring piece, the male soloists particularly vivid, but Yoshihisa Arai’s portrayal as “Melancholia” was a deeply felt exploration that pushed the limits of the piece, while Victoria Jaiani’s dominance of the medium capped the final variation, “Choleric”.

Yoshihisa Arai in “The Four Temperaments”

2) Body of Your Dreams. Choreographer: Myles Thatcher; Music: Jacob ter Veldhuis

Chicago Premiere

This witty and inventive piece is named after the brilliant score by Jacob Ter Veldhuis, (Jacob TV), the revolutionary Dutch composer. While the Joffrey’s press material describes the work as “a madcap play on fitness crazes”, it is also a good-humored mockery of American consumerism. Michael Struck-Schloen of Deutschlandradio called Ter Veldhuis’ intriguing composition “an artistic polyphony of consumer terror.”


This reviewer had the opportunity to interview this iconoclast on the eve of the Joffrey’s winter opening. The wildly inventive musician shared his long-held fascination with American culture; “It’s so spontaneous, so vibrant, so over-the-top”. He advised, “If you look at American pop culture, in the last 120 years, so much incredible music came from ordinary untrained people”.

He recalled seeing the infomercial for “The Abtronic”, a strap-on waist belt that “produced 3000 contractions in minutes”. He was immediately enthralled with the notion that anybody could believe in- or buy- a device that promised weight loss with no effort, “no sweat”. TV confided, “Nobody in Europe would buy this. The fitness workout comes from the American world”.

Long a pioneer in multiple-genre musical structuring, he had been commissioned to compose a piano piece for German radio. “They can be incredibly serious”, he said, and he decided not to produce a “boring” classical work. Instead, he brought together segments of the actual Abtronic video commercial, both audio and video. “I used the melody and rhythm of speech from the ad as my lyrics. There’s a groove to American speech, like poetry from the subway”. It’s constructed with repetitive vocal exhortations, such as “Oh!” and “The Body of Your Dreams!,” juxtaposed with a beautiful “virtuoso piano piece, a piece for piano and soundtrack, and a challenge for the pianist”.

The sound effects are super rhythmic in nature, exciting and wildly compelling- also hilarious. TV advised that at this moment, 4 separate dance troupes around the world- Netherlands Dance Theatre, BackBone, a troupe from Amsterdam using hiphop music, a company from Heidelberg, and The Joffrey- are all performing to his pieces.

The Joffrey Ballet performs “The Body of Your Dreams”

The Joffrey production does not use the visual tape from TV’s work. Rather, in front of huge funhouse mirrors built into a 4-panelled rectangular white-framed backdrop, the perfectly fit dancers segue between classical dance moves and poses/routines reminiscent of exercises; think stylized jogging and sit-ups, with exaggerated extensions and back-kicks. The white workout pants/shorts and tees with splashes of color designed by Susan Roemer, the gay and insouciant attitudes throw the good-natured satire into sharp relief: we are our bodies!

3) Beyond the Shore; Choreographer: Nicolas Blanc; Music: Mason Bates

World Premiere

Nicholas Blanc, Joffrey Ballet master, set his multi-part piece to the music of former CSO composer in residence Mason BatesThe B-Sides. a symphony in 5 movements for electronica and orchestra.The program notes for the album advise “Like the forgotten bands from the flipside of an old piece of vinyl, The B-Sides offers brief landings on a variety of peculiar planets, unified by a focus on fluorescent orchestral sonorities and the morphing rhythms of electronica.” It fit well into the program after Jacob TV’s piece, as the latter movements included taped portions; the earlier movements sounded ethereal/sonic. The electronic segments, however, are only “one of many resources in his orchestral palette”, all deftly managed by the Philharmonic.

The ballet itself is an ambitious journey through the “mesmerizing worlds” crafted to by the substantial musical forms. For the premiere, Bates created “at Nic’s request, an ambient shimmering opening soundascape, Nic’s Netherworld,  that unfolds for several minutes before the orchestra enters”. After this intro, the Philharmonic created the unearthly, otherworldly crystalline sounds for the dancers as they lyrically coupled and danced in mesmerizing groupings and radiant costumes by Katrin Schnabel to “Broom of the System”, “Aerosol Melody”, “Gemini in the Solar Wind”, “Temescal Noir” and “Warehouse Medicine”.

Victoria Jaiani and Fabrice Calmels in “Beyond the Shore”

4) Glass Pieces; Choreography: Jerome Robbins; Music: Philip Glass

Joffrey Premiere

Jerome Robbins, the legendary American choreographer, director, dancer and theater producer, would have celebrated his 100th birthday this year. In his honor, the Joffrey presented his expansive yet streamlined Glass Pieces set to the music of “minimalist” composer Philip Glass; Glass himself refers to his style as “music with repetitive structures.

A full-company piece melding athletic ability to technically stunning dance artistry, the work embodies the vibrant swing of metropolitan American life circa 1983. This bemusing work marries artistry with verve to echo the pulse of 1980’s metropolitan America. Duets alternate with crowds of “pedestrians” promenading across the stage, culminating “in a finale that propels the corps de ballet across the stage at an electrifying pace.”

Glass Pieces opens with the troupe of dancers in alternating jewel-color garments by Ben Benson traversing the stage in patterns against a backdrop resembling graphpaper. Named after Glass’s compositions and excerpts, the dance begins with ”Rubric,” in which three classical couples separate from the patterns, stopping abruptly. In ”Facades,” a host of female dancers seem to hum and buzz, assembling in various shifting patterns around a duet.  Finally, in an excerpt, “Funeral” from his opera Akhnaten, a percussive ritualized beat propels teams of male dancers in a modern drama.

The piece was beautifully danced by the corps  and equally beautifully played by the Chicago Philharmonic under the baton of Scott Speck.

The Joffrey Ballet in “Glass Pieces”

Kudos to Colleen Neary and Jean-Pierre Frohlich for stagecraft, Mark Stanley for scenic and lighting design, Gloria Cabral and Ronald Bates for scenic design, lighting by Sebastián Solórzano Rodríguez and Jennifer Tipton, recreated by Perry Silvey

All photos by Cheryl Mann

For tickets and information about future performances go to the Joffrey website

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