February 12, 2014—Joffrey Ballet brought some of the finest in contemporary dance works to Auditorium Theatre with its program, Contemporary Choreographers, running February 12-23. The evening built momentum with each gorgeous abstraction, saving the best for last with Alexander Ekman’s “Episode 31.”

Chicago native Brock Clawson’s “Crossing Ashland” was an intriguing exploration about human connections. The link between the clothed individuals crossing an imaginary street in the background and the dancers clad in nude leotards or dance belts in the foreground was not readily apparent (without reading the program notes), but the body formations were so beautiful that it almost didn’t matter. This is a work that makes one want to have a camera handy to capture each fleeting, beautiful shape created by the dancers. The lighting paired with the movement not only accentuates the shadows of every muscle (the performers look like Grecian statues come to life), but also dramatically illuminates dancers’ limbs against a black backdrop in the third section. While “Crossing Ashland” offered pleasing aesthetics in many places, some of the dancing lacked polish, particularly the synchronization issues in section one.

Christopher Wheeldon’s “Continuum” takes a similarly minimalist approach to costuming with performers wearing simple green leotards or unitards. Performed to György Ligeti’s rhythmically complex music, which was performed live by pianists Mungunchimeg Buriad and Paul James Lewis, the choreography was striking with its corresponding geometric shapes and precise movements. Wheeldon’s use of shadow, as well as his play on flexing limbs made for striking visuals. Plus, the multiple pairings throughout “Continuum” showcased some of the finest duos of the Joffrey Ballet: Christine Rocas and Temur Suluashvili; Yumelia Garcia and Rory Hohenstein; Mahallia Ward and Alberto Velzquez; and April Daly and Fabrice Calmels. Each pairing wowed with fluid, dynamic partnering, and clean, polished execution.

Just when you think the evening can’t get any better, the Contemporary Choreographers showcase concludes with Alexander Ekman’s “Episode 31,” one of the most original and exciting contemporary works I’ve seen in the past decade. The performance was preceded by video footage of Joffery dancers performing flash-mob-style around Chicago, as well as rehearsing “Episode 31” and commenting on their impressions of the work. One of the dancers likened the piece to an action film where characters race against time to perform a variety of different tasks—this is certainly an apt description. Ekman’s piece is incredibly high-octane for the first half, with dancers costumed (remarkably stylishly) in various suit pieces rushing around at sustained high-energy levels. It’s one of those pieces with the kind of contagious vigor that gives you the itch to start dancing, yourself—while simultaneously gluing you to your seat, so you don’t miss one second of it. What a treat that Joffrey Ballet reprised this one after the company first performed it at the Chicago Dancing Festival in August.

It is always satisfying to see the Joffrey Ballet bring to life the work of contemporary choreographers with the same personality and athleticism that they bring to classic story ballets.

Joffrey Ballet, "Episode 31" by Alexander Ekman  (photo by Cheryl Mann).

Joffrey's Dazzling Showcase of Contemporary Choreographers

Dance Review: By Emily Disher