The Joffrey Ballet’s “Winning Works” program this weekend at the Harold Washington Library Center is a window into the future of ballet… and the view is inspiring. The program, now in its seventh year, pairs winners of the Joffrey’s choreographic ALAANA award (acronym: African, Latino(a), Asian, Arab and Native American), with young dancers from the Joffrey Studio Company and Academy trainees—student dancers in their teens and early twenties poised to launch professional careers. This year’s ALAANA winners—Shannon Alvis, Sean Aaron Carmon, Karen Gabay and Jimmy Orrante—are talented emerging choreographers of color in an art form long dominated by white men. And sitting in the seats of the Cindy Pritzker Auditorium (a gem venue in the basement of the library), watching the artistry of the next generation, one can tell a sea change is at hand. For evidence, look no further than the dancers, who hail from across the country and around the world. No one skin tone dominates the stage—a rarity in professional ballet—and the young artists share a rigorous discipline and dedication to the craft. They dance four stylistically distinct pieces with skill and admirable versatility.
The first, Orrante’s “Scend,” was en pointe, set to Luigi Boccherini’s “Symphony in D minor,” and stuck to straight ahead classical vocabulary and patterning. Calf-length red dresses for women and red pants with lacy tops for the men matched the elevated aural and physical tone of the piece. The second, Alvis’ “Moonlight,” was a striking contrast, opening on barefoot dancers in white tunics moving between haunting tableaus. Alvis uses contemporary, release-based, energy-waving movement—internally driven choreography that demanded emotional commitment from her dancers, who rose to the challenge, executing stutters of feet and ripples of spine with equal presence and focus.
The third piece, “Hopeful Undertones” was a standout of the program, primarily because of Gabay’s approach to the choreography. Gabay, mother of a fifteen-year-old, created the piece to speak directly to the joys, heartaches and anxiety of teenagers in today’s increasingly complex social universe. The piece opens with a handful of dancers taking a Proustian stretch and rise from sleep to enter a game of duck-duck-goose. Then in a flash we see teens trying on various poses and identities (the lightning-quick transition from childhood to adolescence clearly a mother’s view of the passage of time). Bright-colored costumes inspired by street clothes evoke pairings, loners and in-groups in what could be a high school hallway. We then move to a series of duets that explore the lows and highs of depression and infatuation. One movement about a young woman struggling with feelings of despair and alienation includes the most emotionally poignant use of an arms-linked corps de ballet I’ve yet seen. And a wry, playful sequence about flirtation and the blossoming of sexual identity strikes a magical balance of truthfulness, charm and nuance. Needless to say the cast danced “Hopeful Undertones” with an honesty that can only come from dancers of this age. Gabay created a ballet explicitly for her cast—dance as a John Hughes film.
The final piece, “Suite Hearts” by Carmon, ended the program with a bang. It opens big, fast, full company, all dancers in matching unitards, bursting into explosive leaps and lifts from the get-go. The theme is flirtation and romance, and the moods of the piece are as mercurial as young love. Carmon’s grounding in jazz and modern shows in the choreography, and he elicits spectacular partnering from the dancers, including a lift (twice!) that involves a 360-degree, upside-down spin of the women. It’s great fun, peppered with moments of wit and humor and landing on a punchy ending that signals the burst of applause.
“Winning Works” is prescient; it makes clear that the future of ballet in America reflects the future of the American story itself: a natural progression from heteronormative, euro-centric myths with monochromatic protagonists to tales more complex, from viewpoints long ignored or unseen. To those who wring their hands over the continued relevance of ballet: see “Winning Works” and take heart; ballet is not dying but evolving, unfolding and expanding to include a multitude of voices, ideas, modes of expression. The art form will only become richer for it. (Sharon Hoyer)
At the Cindy Pritzker Auditorium at the Harold Washington Library Center, 400 South State, Saturday, March 11 at 2pm and 7pm, and Sunday, March 12 at 2pm. Free. To reserve seats, visit WinningWorks2017.Eventbrite.