Dances by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa have been performed in Chicago before—repertory for Luna Negra back in 2009 and this past year when Scottish Ballet visited with “A Streetcar Named Desire”—but this is her first commission for the Joffrey Ballet. “I came to see the company—I’m not always invited to big companies,” she said, “and I had this piece of music that is so powerful I was waiting for the right moment and the right company. I proposed it to Ashley [Wheater, Artistic Director of the Joffrey]. He said, ‘I know it from the San Francisco Ballet; we tried to use it but in the end we canceled the thing because we didn’t know how to interpret it. Go ahead, good luck!'”
The music is “Weather One,” a piece by composer Michael Gordon that starts big and builds in force over the course of twenty minutes like a gathering storm. Lopez Ochoa needed a larger ensemble to execute her vision, which charges forward with the high-octane escalation of an action-movie trailer. Or perhaps a natural disaster movie trailer. The title, “Mammatus,” refers to a rare, beautiful and rather terrifying type of storm cloud, inspired by both the music and the mercurial weather that rolls in off Lake Michigan. “I looked at pictures of mammatus clouds and thought ‘wow!’ And that’s maybe what I want from the audience, to think ‘Wow! Nature is so powerful!'”
The Joffrey has ten new dancers this year, most of whom are in “Mammatus,” giving Lopez Ochoa talent befitting both the “Millennials” theme of the program and the energetic, tempestuous, near-chaotic mood of her piece. The dancers take on a physicality reminiscent of flocking birds and you can see the eager desire in the young performers to take flight; to stretch further, to leap higher. The fierce concentration on the faces of the cast heightens the drama. Originally Lopez Ochoa had not choreographed the piece for pointe, but she quickly added pointe shoes because it felt too contemporary for the dancers. “But funny enough they got so used to my movements that it became more contemporary,” she said. “It’s really a case of meeting in the middle.”
And “Mammatus” is highly contemporary by Joffrey standards: hands held like claws, tumbles across the floor. The piece is set in a prairie sky and Lopez Ochoa’s use of the stage depth, width and height is massive; she fully exploits the leaping power of the men—tour jetés and stag leaps abound—and the ensemble sections between duets and trios (or vice versa… the partner work feels more like little eyes in the storm) criss-crosses the stage from every corner. The pointe work is a nice touch too; when the ensemble flocks together midway through, the bourrés of twenty wooden toe boxes drum the floor like thunder.
It’s a refreshing addition to the Joffrey repertoire, demanding versatility of its many new recruits and harkening back to the imaginative abstraction that made the company’s reputation decades ago. The piece has a touch of daring, with moments that brink on chaos. Before rehearsal, when I asked Lopez Ochoa if there was anything else I should know she said, “Go buy the music.” (Sharon Hoyer)
At the Auditorium Theatre, 50 East Congress, (800)982-2787. September 16-20. $32-$155. $20 for millennial audience members.