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Joffrey Ballet

'Pas de Déesses,' 'Deuce Coupe,' 'Billboards: Sometimes It Snows In April'

by Katie Rosenfeld

October 4th, 2007 -- Zellerbach Hall, UC Berkeley campus

An entire generation of dancers has come of age since the last time the Joffrey performed in the Bay Area. If the company members felt any pressure from the sold-out house to make up for their long absence, they certainly didn’t let it show. Whether they were whipping through an ensemble ménage of chaînés or sliding across the stage in their socks, a calm joy radiated through Zellerbach Hall.

Opening the show was Robert Joffrey’s 1956 piece “Pas de Déesses” (Dance of the Goddesses), and it was the interaction between the dancers that added sparkle to the dancing. Portraying four members of the Romantic Era elite, Maia Wilkins (as Lucille Grahn), Jennifer Goodman (as Fanny Cerrito), Valerie Robin (as Marie Taglioni) and Michael Levine (as Arthur St. Leon) nailed both the tricky technical elements of the choreography and the competitive, faux-friendly interplay.

Each of the three ballerinas showcased a different skill set: Wilkins was all sweetness and light, whipping through her turn sequences without a care in the world. Goodman’s beats and quick feet sizzled, her fiery energy pushing Levine to jump higher and faster just to keep up. The picture of elegance, Robin refused to hurry, controlling each balance with the serene demeanor of a woman who does not question her own strength. It was Levine’s gallant partnering that allowed the three women to dance with effortless grace, and after the three grueling pas de deux he bounced through a tough series of tours en l’air and entrechats six with renewed vigor.

All four dancers were well served by pianist Paul Lewis, who paid close attention to their musical needs and allowed them the freedom to dance at their own pace.

Set to the music of the Beach Boys, Twyla Tharp’s “Deuce Coupe” celebrates sun, surf and sassiness. The original backdrop, covered in graffiti, could easily be from Spring Break 2007. The ensemble created a vibe that invoked a hang loose, party mentality. The women had their hair down and were dressed in orange bathing-suit-like costumes and jazz shoes, and the men’s Hawaiian shirts were unbuttoned. In stark contrast, one lone woman worked through the classical vocabulary of ballet. Heather Aagard was picture-perfect, clothed in a simple pink-skirted leotard, pink tights and pointe shoes with her hair in a classical bun. Oblivious to the fun being had all around her, she focused on perfecting her port de bras, matching it to equally proper developés and tendus.

And they sure were having fun, shimmying and be-bopping around, letting the music take over their bodies in a glorious celebration of friendship, flirtation and physical release. Throughout the mini-vignettes that flowed from one segment of song to another (including perennial favorites like “Catch a Wave,” “Wouldn’t It Be Nice?” and “Little Honda”), the duality of the relaxed, freestyle dancing of the group and Aargard’s controlled, sustained movement seemed happy to co-exist without blending until the final section, set to the song “Cuddle Up.” The tenderness with which the group enveloped Aagard was a sweet surprise, and the lyrics summed up the rest of the piece perfectly: “Making love/to wake/to find/we’re still one.”

When “Billboards” hit the ballet scene in 1993, and gained a mainstream audience with the PBS Dance in America television broadcast in 1994, it was a breakthrough for the MTV generation. Prince personified the sexy outrageousness of the American club scene, and to see ballet dancers stepping out of the centuries-old stereotype of princesses and cavaliers to revel in the sensuality of the piece was inspiring. A lot has changed since the mid-90’s; ballet itself has evolved into a global perspective that has widened our definitions of dance,, This ballet, which was once revolutionary, is somewhat of a period piece, albeit still fully engaging and entertaining. The white, sparkly costumes underscored this; while the women’s backless evening gowns were simple enough to be timeless, the men’s pleated-front pants were too reminiscent of MC Hammer to be from any other era.

“Sometimes It Snows in April” is a gorgeous, heartbreaking song, and Laura Dean’s choreography sinks into that mournfulness with longing and tenderness. A long line of dancers criss-crossed the stage, pausing to curve into momentary pairs before sliding back into formation. The 18 dancers showed off beautiful, slow extensions and a floating, free quality reminiscent of gently falling snow. Just as the sadness settled into near-silence on the stage, the pop! of “Trust/Baby I’m a Star” startled everyone back into reality and celebration. This final section looked like such fun to dance; the sweaty exhilaration of a dance club caused a number of dancers to sing along while they pushed through the giant kicks and leaps of the frantic last minutes.

Just as it seemed they couldn’t possibly stay at that energy level, the group came together into straight lines for a series of piqué turns that switched both direction and spot location, first front, then back, in unison. If that weren’t impressive enough, another difficult turn section soon followed: the women whirled into a large circle, their chaîné turns maintaining perfect spacing, leaving room for the men who soon joined the circle while the women continued turning, the men’s chaînés morphing into deep full-knee lunges and huge, soaring barrel turns. After a return to the step-ball-changes and box steps of oh-so-90’s jazz, and a few more ensemble piqué turns for good measure, the company hit the floor face-first on the last note of the music and the lights snapped off as though they, too, were completely worn out.   

With newly-named Artistic Director Ashley Wheater at the helm, it can only be hoped that the Joffrey will return to the Bay Area more often than every 10 years, and perhaps next time they come, they will bring more of their extensive repertoire. They have a faithful fan base here that would be thrilled to see more from this American institution.

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