Though differing in mood, the three works in Joffrey’s Beyond Borders program are structurally of a type: abstract, ensemble-based, heavy on unison choreography that exhibits the patterns that can be formed by dancers forged according to an exacting technique. Featuring a world premiere by Chanel DaSilva, alongside a 2013 work by the late Liam Scarlett, and a 1978 work by late Joffrey cofounder, resident choreographer, and artistic director Gerald Arpino, the program demonstrates continuity of concept and coherence of craft throughout the company but little range.
Beyond BordersThrough 10/23: Thu-Fri 7:30 PM, Sat 2 and 7:30 PM, Sun 2 PM, Lyric Opera House, 20 N. Wacker, 312-386-8905, joffrey.org, $36-$180
The curtain rises at the stride of footfalls treading the length of the stage in Scarlett’s Vespertine, wherein dancers clothed in opulent burgundy pace the stage beneath chandeliers composed of glass goblets shaped like raindrops, dimly lit. A single figure stripped to near nothing walks crosscurrent up the depth, and the others neither make way nor obstruct. Set to music by Bjarte Eike, John Dowland, Arcangelo Corelli, and Francesco Geminiani, the tone is somber, the sound baroque. The word “baroque” may derive from irregular pearls or warts, referring at first to an obstacle to logic and becoming, over time, the descriptor of art, architecture, music, and time formally characterized by ornamentation, thematically characterized by the spectacular encounter of the sensuous with the spiritual.
In Vespertine, the theme is elaborated upon via costuming (also designed by Scarlett), especially the silky, slippery, corseted dresses worn by the women, which are sometimes manipulated into capes and other shapes, sometimes draped upon sometimes shirtless, sometimes clothed men—who sometimes reach behind and pull them up like schoolboys shaming their classmates. The slide of the fabric is occasionally mimicked in the surface they dance upon, particularly in a solo slip to the floor on the edges of pointes (another arrangement of satin, hardened and then softened)—later repeated once by a dancer in flat shoes—perhaps just enough times to remind us of the precarity of even solid ground. The semblance of nudity and the formality of dress, as well as the binary nature of the partnerships, recalls but cannot surpass Jiří Kylián’s 1991 Petite Mort—Vespertine is beautiful but forgettable.
Whereas Vespertine relies on decoration for drama, DaSilva’s colōrem offers stark minimalism in full force: hordes of dancers in unitards that cover their hands and feet, divided into tribes of red and gray, set to a score by Cristina Spinei. It’s inspired by Tim Tadder’s Nothing to See, a photography project that contrasts bodies painted to a matte mannequin finish in contrasting colors, entwined in poses that bind and blind. Presented against white backdrops along the three sides of the stage, perhaps to reference the white box of the gallery, the work begins with abstraction, bodies arrayed back to back, with deliberate unison motions that create structures that recall diagrams of chromosomes. The figures are tiny against a vast canvas, smaller than chess pieces as they divide into troupes by color and return to intermingle.
Only when the white walls fall does a pair of individuals emerge—on Saturday evening, Amanda Assucena in gray and Xavier Núñez in red—Eve and Adam in a postapocalyptic wasteland or cosmonauts at the edge of a dark universe. Their duet is exploratory, sometimes combative, with deep backbends by Assucena, hailing a domain on the verge of construction or collapse.
José Pablo Castro Cuevas and Natali Taht in Gerald Arpino’s Suite Saint-Saëns Cheryl Mann
The program closes with Arpino’s Suite Saint-Saëns, which according to Joffrey artistic director Ashley Wheater has not been performed by the company in almost 20 years. In four movements set to lush music by Camille Saint-Saëns that begins against a simple backdrop of cirrus clouds on a blue sky, dancers clad in ombré candy colors, the work is light and bright and airy—and performed at incredible speed. It conveys the brilliance of sunlight shimmering on water, of egg whites whipped into meringue, of something pure and delicious briefly and wonderfully sensed.