The Joffrey Ballet
Lincoln Center
David H. Koch Theater
New York, New York

March 29 and 30, 2017
Romeo and Juliet
Bells, Body of Your Dreams, Fool’s Paradise

— by Jerry Hochman

It may be difficult for those born in the 80s and beyond to accept, but there was a time in the when The Joffrey Ballet was the most eclectic and diverse major ballet company in New York.

It was the antidote to stuffy companies that constantly presented war horse ballets, or relied on the vision of only a couple of men (significant as that vision usually was). It was the “it” company, the company that mirrored current trends, and that made news. Robert Joffrey’s 1967 Astarte, a multimedia pas de deux, conquered NYC – and made the cover of Time Magazine in March, 1968, 6 months after its premiere; and Clive Barnes called Arpino’s 15-dancer rock ballet Trinity “[o]ne of the most enjoyable works ever presented at City Center.” Classic overlooked ballets were reborn (Jooss’s The Green Table and The Big City, Fokine’s Petruschka, Massine’s Parade, Ashton’s Monotones, and in 1987 a major reconstruction of Nijinsky’s The Rite of Spring); new choreographic styles were presented to a public searching for something different (Twyla Tharp’s 1973 Deuce Coup), and/or that were simply gorgeous and wonderful to watch no matter how often you saw them (Arpino’s 1978 Suite Saint-Saens and 1981 Light Rain). And then there was a little program called “Homage to Diaghilev,” for which the company joined forces with Rudolph Nureyev, on Broadway.

Founded in 1956 by Joffrey and Arpino as a touring group of six dancers, the company was reborn as The Joffrey Ballet in New York in 1965, and became City Center’s resident ballet company the following year. It was a regular destination for me in the 70s and 80s, and where I honed my skills at identifying dances from other companies who attended Joffrey performances to see what all the fuss was about. But in 1995, unable to sustain itself financially, and after trying out Los Angeles as a second home, Joffrey and Arpino moved the company to Chicago, a relative ballet wasteland that had no resident company of its own. It took some time, but the company, now under the leadership of Artistic Director Ashley Wheater, gradually carved a home for itself and has thrived since.

As a full company, The Joffrey had not returned to the place of its birth for over twenty years, until Tuesday night, the opening of a week long season at Lincoln Center (produced by The Joyce Theater Foundation, which is acquiring a commendable reputation as the city’s current reincarnation of Sol Hurok). The company brought with it a new production of Romeo and Juliet, choreographed by Polish National Ballet Artistic Director Krzysztof Pastor, and for a one gala night only, a three-dance repertory program consisting of Yuri Possokhov’s Bells, a NY premiere, the company premiere of Myles Thatcher’s Body of Your Dreams, and Christopher Wheeldon’s Fool’s Paradise.

While there were undeniable highpoints, both programs made me wish I’d had the opportunity to see other pieces in the Joffrey repertory. I will consider them in performance order.

Romeo and Juliet

I have no objection to modification of classic story ballets, not only those that streamline them for 21st Century audiences, but also those that might modify the story and/or restructure the score, change the period and/or location, or impose a contemporary choreographic style. Pastor’s Romeo and Juliet does all of this.

Even on its own merits, however, this Romeo and Juliet works only on the most basic of levels – as a tragic love story, and also because it was gifted with a marvelous performance by the evening’s Juliet, Christine Rocas. Otherwise, there are scattered moments of ingenuity and novelty that work, but overall the ballet fails to deliver on its own concept, which didn’t make much theatrical sense in the first place. And the failure of the concept impacted both the presentation (the sets/costumes) and the choreography.

Pastor’s concept has two prongs. First, instead of the story being a tragedy, perhaps of universal and timeless application, he stresses the continuing nature of it, and the inevitability of it. It’s a fact of life. There are Capulets and Montagues and Juliets and Romeos throughout time, and it will continue this way, from generation to generation. Needless to say, there’s no reconciliation between surviving members of the feuding families at the ballet’s end: it’s just another day at the crypt.

Pastor sets the ballet somewhere in 1930s Italy. Ok, Verona is in Italy, so why not? But the set has nothing to do with 1930s Verona: it could be a neighborhood in any large Italian city (or that of any other country). But fine. Then, to “prove” his point, the identical characters time travel to 1950s Italy, and then, for the Third Act, to 1990s Italy. Ok, conceptual license. The projected set, however, changes little. Same street; the only difference being the projected “parked” cars/motorcycles and the color wash. There’s some color difference in the Capulet girls’ costumes, and somewhere along the way suits yield to T shirts. Ok, chalk it up to budget issues. And the insignificantly different time periods don’t allow for much scenic or costume diversity anyway.

The larger problem, however, isn’t cosmetic. Pastor’s intent here is to demonize the Capulets and their ilk (on a continuing basis). So the Capulet men, befitting 1930s Italy, are dressed in black (women’s costumes have some blood red added). Black Shirts. They’re fascists – Pastor says it in the program. [And that’s obviously why he picked 1930s Italy.] And the Montagues (Romeo, Mercutio. Benvolio, and friends) are…“liberal thinkers.” This is no longer a blood feud, it’s a political and sociological vendetta to subjugate those who don’t adhere to the fascist philosophy.

This decision impacts the other two time periods. The Capulets are in black; they’re always in black, even though there no longer were black shirts in Italy in the 50s and 90s (to my knowledge). Ok. there are fascist bad guys throughout history. We get it.

But it’s not just the costumes. To hammer his concept home, Pastor hits us over the head with an anvil. At the beginning of Acts I and II (I didn’t notice any for the direct segue into what is usually Act III), archival (and unidentified) newsreel footage is projected of people and street scenes of the “public” out for a casual walk (a la the MacMillan opening of Act II). But at the end of Acts I and II, more newsreel footage is projected, edited as a collage of the horrors of war: bombed out buildings, injured, terrified people; death. Ok for World War II. But what war befell Italy in the 1950s? And 90s? Ok. More license.

Too much license. Too much extraneous stuff that doesn’t so much create a mood as interfere with it.

And then there’s the choreography.

In both Acts I and II, the fascist Capulets march onto the stage like military goons, as close to the goose-stepping of Mussolini troops as Pastor could get without copying it. And this devolves into “fascist” choreography more generally. As opposed to the loosey-goosey (sorry for the goose pun) Montague boys who just want to have fun, the Capulets dance with angular fisted thrusts into the air, a movement motif which is punctuated at significant points with the thrusts maintained as a “u”-shape from one upraised bent-at-the-elbow upper arm, across the body, and up the other upper arm. The visual aggressiveness gets very tiresome. And the leader of the fascist pack in each time period, Capulet, is a hate-filled demon, way more sinister than his henchman/nephew Tybalt.

When Pastor abandons the fascist choreography, as in the Romeo and Juliet duets, its fine. But the street dances and very fake stylized street fight in Act I, the Capulet party, the replacement for the MacMillan “wedding” dance, they’re not “court dances” or commedia del’arte or wedding dances, or contemporary updates of any of them: they’re all about the exercise of power.

The piece is not without interesting examples of creativity, and Pastor deserves credit for it. During the initial fascist house party, at one point Juliet dances with her father, who’s in a foul mood because those corrupting Capulets have penetrated his perimeter (not that he needs an excuse to be in a foul mood). Played with machine-like intensity by the towering Fabrice Calmels, Capulet does his fist-thrust into u-shaped arms dance. His daughter, essentially, tells her father to lighten up, soften the edges, relax those fists. He does, begins to smile weakly, and it becomes an awkward but cute little daddy-daughter duet until those nasty free-thinking Capulets return.

And after Tybalt’s death, Capulet’s wife (this is 30s, 50s, 90s Italy; there are no “Lords” and “Ladies”) blames her husband – it was he who provided Tybalt with the dagger used to kill Mercutio, which Romeo subsequently uses to kill Tybalt (and here the fight leading to these deaths is where the piece actually begins to look real, although the scene may be too violent for some). This is quite effective – as is the suggestion that not only was there a relationship between Capulet’s wife and Tybalt, but perhaps also between Capulet and Tybalt. I also found interesting that in Act III Juliet’s mother, who sympathizes with her daughter after she’s ordered to marry, is the one who suggests that Juliet consult with Friar Lawrence. Capulet may have given Tybalt that knife, but his wife’s actions led to the notion of the potion.

But there are just as many scenes, if not more, that don’t work. In Juliet’s introduction scene, her mother (this is 30s, 50s, 90s Italy; there’s no “Nurse”) shows her she’s growing by outlining her daughter’s body, and then, instead of emphasizing her maturing development, pats Juliet on the tummy, effectively telling her supposedly 16 year old daughter that soon she should (or is going to) have a baby. A bun in a 16 year old’s oven? An heir to the fascist family throne? Granted Pastor couldn’t copy MacMillan, but still, this is 30s, 50s, 90s, Italy….

Also since there’s no Nurse, Juliet’s “invitation” to get married is delivered by her two friends, except one doesn’t know that because there’s nothing in the choreography or staging to indicate it – suddenly Romeo and the two friends (sweetly played by Amanda Assucena and Anastacia Holden) leave the street party and meet up with Juliet at Friar Lawrence’s nondescript location. [Speaking of Friar Lawrence (spelled with a “w”), what was he doing at the Capulet party? He does look kinda creepy.  Maybe the friar’s a fascist too. This is getting much too complicated.]

And in the last act, when Juliet, after spending the night with Romeo (who exits her room merely by walking off into the wings) is confronted by her dastardly father who demands that she pick a husband, the choice is suddenly presented as from among six mechanical-looking fascist’s in training – presumably they were at the Capulet soiree in the 30s – who walk into the room unescorted (from the opposite wings), take seats around a table, and just sit there, until for no apparent reason a few at a time get up and leave, leaving one lone suitor (identified in the program as Paris, but not in any way discernible from the action on stage), who Juliet quickly accepts.

And those are just a few examples.

Rory Hohenstein’s Romeo was milquetoast until he kills Tybalt, after which he came emotionally alive (somewhat like the Romeo in Peter Martins’s version), and Temur Suluashvili was a competent and at times irritating Tybalt. April Daly’s “His wife” handled what little she was given well, and Yoshihisa Arai delivered a sparkling Mercutio. And aside from Juliet, Calmels’s Capulet made the production, even though he had little to do most of the time than move like Frankenstein’s Monster and maintain a demeanor to match. He was a stiff, unbending (literally) political zealot, nasty to the core: a villain’s villain. And even though he didn’t look like he had much to do, he was dominating emotionally as well as physically. [It might be a consequence of the size of the other dancers in the company, but Calmels looks like he’s ready to play for the Chicago Bulls.]

But in a production with largely cardboard characters, Rocas made Juliet real. Every personality trait needed in a Juliet was clearly portrayed, and her execution, even limited to repetitious choreography, soared. And her somewhat closed-mouthed scream (can’t copy MacMillan…), delivered twice as I recall, was chillingly delivered. Her performance alone, together with a measure of curiosity value, makes this Romeo and Juliet worth seeing.

Repertory

While Romeo and Juliet gives a hint of the current Joffrey’s willingness to take risks (and it may well be that Pastor’s version is more galvanizing to its Chicago audiences than it is in New York, where audiences generally tend to be more conservative with respect to classical fidelity), the repertory program that it presented in connection with the Joyce Theater Foundation’s gala evening was ok, but not much more.

Possokhov’s Bells, a 2011 commissioned ballet, supposedly (according to the program) mixes classic form with seething intensity. I got the classic form; the seething intensity as more difficult to find.

Choreographed to an assortment of unidentified Rachmaninoff piano pieces (excellently played by Grace Kim and Kuang-Hao Huang), the piece combines “relationship” dances with folk dance idioms, and basks in the warmly tinted spring-like costumes by Sandra Woodall and gentle lighting by Jack Mehle. I particularly liked the playful duet nicely executed by Holden and Arai, and the interplay between the larger groups of men and women, but it’s ordinary (compare, in a somewhat similar vein but with much greater depth, Alexei Ratmansky’s Russian Seasons). However, the pas de deux for Daly and Calmels in which she alternatingly entices, teases and rejects him, though the emotions are tacked on the way the folk dance references are (snapped fingers at the end of phrases; legs suddenly kicked out laterally at the top of a lift), was superbly done – and Calmel here shows that he can execute an intimate pas de deux with a lot more class and technical skill than Frankenstein’s Monster. In addition to those mentioned, Victoria Jaiani, Jacqueline Moscicke, Joanna Wozniak, Graham Maverick, Aaron Renteria, and Suluashvili played their roles well.

Myles Thatcher, a member of San Francisco Ballet’s corps, is an emerging choreographer with several successes already under his belt. A piece he created for New York City Ballet in 2015, Polaris, showed promise. Body of Your Dreams does too, but in a completely different and much less satisfying way. The piece, which premiered in December in Mexico City, is a concept dance that has eight dancers in some physical training facility training others, being trained, or just displaying evidence of the physical joy of exercise when the bodies involved don’t need it. It’s a well-intentioned one-note joke that has the dancers moving quickly and in a pseudo dance-as-exercise or exercise-as-dance way, but there’s nothing here except attractive, engaging and energetic dancers moving attractively, engagingly and energetically. And the “music” by Jacob Ter Veldhus, is essentially a collection of repeated training-encouragement phrases as might be shouted out by the leader of a training class to motivate his/her trainees to attain their goals. If this was intended as a satire on such training classes and efforts to become “fit,” it misses the mark. It’s entertaining to the extent it is because the dancers are. Thatcher no doubt has considerable choreographic ability – it’s not easy to create anything reasonably coherent from a numbing collection of stuck-together spoken/shouted phrases, but at least Body of Your Dreams is that.

The piece I most enjoyed of the three was Wheeldon’s Fool’s Paradise. Created for his own company (Morphoses/The Wheeldon Company) in 2007, the nine-dancer piece is at times painfully slow, but not uninterestingly so. That it has a meaning, even though I’m not sure what it is, and is intended to transmit an emotion, though I’m not sure what that is either, is much more significant than a stage full of well-choreographed and executed fluff. In a curious way (and abetted by the “falling stars” against a dark night backdrop), I thought of celestial bodies – a variation of Ashton’s Monotones ballets, except there’s much more action going on. I appreciated the spatial sense and the dance’s portentous choreographed attitude – although I suspect some found it simply pretentious. To me, it has the advantage of relatively “early” Wheeldon, before he began repeating himself too often, and before he found yet more fame on Broadway.

Based on these programs only, the current company is not your parents’ Joffrey Ballet. The dancers appear quite competent (and they’re as diverse a group as danced with the Joffrey in NY – indeed, more so – and I regret that I was unable to sit through Romeo and Juliet again to see different casts), but the choice and caliber of choreography doesn’t reflect the same vision that marked its New York incarnation. But I look forward to the Joffrey’s quick return, and to an opportunity to view more of its repertory.