Theater, Dance, Comedy and Performance in Chicago

New Works, New Challenges: The Joffrey Ballet Tackles the Contemporary

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Photo courtesy Christopher Duggan

Photo: Christopher Duggan

The Joffrey dancers are posed with new challenges this winter as the company presents a program of all twenty-first-century works, including a piece by a Chicagoan for the first time in a decade. Brock Clawson is an ex-Thodos dancer-turned-choreographer who has created work for Giordano Dance, the Eisenhower Dance Ensemble in Detroit and the Houston Metropolitan Dance Company. Last year he created a commission for the Milwaukee Ballet entitled “Crossing Ashland.” The piece caught the attention of Ashley Wheater, the Joffrey’s artistic director, and now the company’s at work on Clawson’s choreography, which is as informed by modern and contemporary vocabularies as it is by ballet. “Crossing Ashland” is a tender look at human connection and vulnerability; it spans the space from earth to sky, considering both the ground that claims us and the heavens we reach for. Dancers in street clothes walk, run, embrace behind other dancers in minimal costumes, who create visual amplification of our internal worlds. One memorable sequence unfolds evolution in eight seconds, as dancers seem to crawl from the sea, grow back legs and become bipeds in a single gesture. Weighted sequences like these demand a level of spinal integration and fluidity rarely asked of classical dancers, and it was fascinating to watch the virtuosic Joffrey company in rehearsal, learning to befriend gravity from their bellies and elbows instead of conquering it from a pristinely balanced toe.

“Continuum” by Christopher Wheeldon presents a near opposite set of hurdles. The forty-minute work for four couples is very much neoclassical ballet: all extension, clean lines and precision. The piece is set to the rhythmically complex piano music of late-twentieth-century composer Gyorgy Ligeti. The polyrhythms of the score are so bearishly irregular that dancers must count phrases varying from three to eighteen beats in length. On top of that, some piano phrases slow down while the underlying, but unheard pulse of the music remains constant; the dancers must at moments keep their own time (and unison) against the pull of a misleading beat. Yet Wheeldon choreographed very much for the music; his gorgeous partnering gives physical shape to the score, the effect at times kinetic, at times sculptural, always otherworldly. (Sharon Hoyer)

At the Auditorium Theatre, 50 East Congress, (312)341-2310. February 12-23. $31-$152.

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