The Joffrey Ballet spun onto the Lyric Opera House stage on Wednesday evening with a program of three beautifully danced works under the umbrella title “Beyond Borders.” Those “borders” were stylistic rather than geographical, and the program served as an ideal illustration of what the company’s founder, Robert Joffrey, once explained so eloquently: “Classical ballet is our core, but it is not our circumference.”
The Joffrey dancers (a number of them new recruits replacing recent retirees, and all of them an ideal fit) are masters of classical technique. But they also possess a great flair for what has long been one of the Joffrey’s signature traits — the ability to interpret the work of contemporary choreographers who create pieces that are superb hybrids of ballet and modern dance styles. And conductor Scott Speck, an invaluable Joffrey collaborator who is invariably in impeccable synchrony with the dancers, led the splendid musicians of the Lyric Opera Orchestra in the program’s three notably varied scores.
Opening the company’s fall season program was “Vespertine,” an exquisite work created in 2013 for the Norwegian National Ballet by Liam Scarlett, who was artist-in-residence for Britain’s Royal Ballet when he died a tragic death in 2021 at the age of 35.
Set to the music of Baroque masters John Dowland, Arcangelo Corelli and Francesco Geminiani, as well as Bjarte Eike (a contemporary Norwegian violinist and Baroque specialist), the ballet, with a title that means “flowering in the evening,” unfolds beneath giant golden, globe-shaped chandeliers.
The male dancers arrive dressed in 17th century-style, burgundy-hued coats, while the women wear fluid dresses of the same color with skirts with slits that can seem like wings at times. And underneath all these costumes the dancers are dressed in sheer, flesh-toned body suits. At times, their movements suggest courtly dances, and at other times, they take on a decidedly sensual and acrobatic quality full of passion and rejection, elaborate lifts and floor work, and with one notable male duet.
The exceptional leading couples on opening night (casts will vary during the run) were Amanda Assucena, Alberto Velasquez, Victoria Jaiani and Edson Barbosa. But there was splendid dancing by every member of the ensemble that included Anais Bueno, Olivia Duryea, Gayeon Jung, Yumi Kanazowa, Derek Drilon, Fernando Duarte, Graham Maverick and Xavier Nuñez.
Next on the program was the world premiere of “colorem,” a fascinating work by Chanel DaSilva set to a haunting original score (modern yet lyrical) by Cristina Spinei.
The ballet (with lighting by Nicole Pierce) opens with nothing but a vast white screen along the back wall of the stage that will undergo a variety of color changes. The costumes for the ensemble of 16 dancers (expertly led by Amanda Assucena and Xavier Nunez), were designed by DaSilva. And the dancers — at moments placed back-to-back in an equal pairing of red and gray body suits with matching gloves — worked a wonderful optical trick and at moments suggested a geometric painting by Mondrian.
Although winningly robotic at some moments, the emotion and movement of the dancers was wonderfully animated, and at times the relationships among them — alternately human and mechanical, and decidedly acrobatic — became an intriguing counterpart to Scarlett’s Baroque piece. The work’s shifting formations and floor patterns (distinct lines, circles and more), ultimately led to a surprising ending. And not surprisingly, when DaSilva arrived on stage to take her bows with the dancers she was met with great applause.
The second half of the program was devoted to an exquisite revival of “Suite Saint-Saens,” a glorious work created in 1978 by the immensely prolific Gerald Arpino. The late dancer, prolific choreographer and co-founder of the Joffrey Ballet, who succeeded Joffrey as its artistic director in 1980, oversaw the company’s move to Chicago in 1995 until his death in 2007. Great credit goes to Suzanne Lopez — a veteran Joffrey dancer who staged this revival, which is being performed just a few months before the centennial of Arpino’s birth — and has served as the company’s invaluable rehearsal director since 2016.
Set against the backdrop of a brilliant blue sky streaked with a few white clouds, and flying on the beauty of Saint-Saens’ music, the work is an ideal showcase for the company’s dancers who spun and leaped like wind-blown clouds in their delicate white costumes streaked in various pastel colors. Arpino’s essential vocabulary was decidedly classical (beautifully fluid pas de deux and all), yet the freedom of the movement was modern. A magical mix full of breathtaking moments and technical prowess.
“Caprice Valse,” the opening segment of the four-part ballet, was winningly danced by Gayeon Jung, along with the impeccable pairings of Jeraldine Mendoza, Edson Barbosa, Valeria Chaykina, Hyuma Kiyosawa, Yumi Kanazawa and Alberto Velazquez.
Mendoza, Barbosa, Anais Bueno and the ensemble moved beautifully through the Serenade. In the Minuet section the ever-sensational Victoria Jaiani, expertly partnered by Dylan Gutierrez, veritably flew through the air with the greatest of ease, with feverish work by Kanazawa, Alberto Velazquez, Zachary Manske and Jose Pablo Castro Cuevas. And the full ensemble of 20 dancers then gathered for the exhilarating Pas Redouble finale.
This program will run through Oct. 23 at the Lyric Opera House, 20 N. Wacker. For tickets visit joffrey.org or phone 312-386-8905.
Follow Hedy Weiss on Twitter: @HedyWeissCritic