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With art and athleticism, the Joffrey Ballet triumphs in New Orleans

05.13.12
Joffrey Ballet
Nola.com

By Chris Waddington

Capping a diverse season of astounding dance performances is no easy trick, but the New Orleans Ballet Association has mastered it. On Saturday, NOBA presented Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet — a decades-old troupe that felt remade, hungry for glory, and ready to pull out the stops for a cheering, sell-out crowd at the Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts. With panache and power, the Joffrey easily cleared the high bar it had already set with a well-received 2006 benefit concert in flood-ravaged New Orleans. 

Saturday’s repertoire helped to underscore the company’s range and the impressive musicality of its dancers. It included a beloved neoclassical work by Jerome Robbins, “In the Night,” and a pair of electrifying Joffrey commissions: Edwaard Liang’s “Age of Innocence,” and Val Caniparoli’s “Incantations.”

For sheer refinement, it was hard to beat the extended adagios of Robbins’ 1970 charmer. Here three sets of partners fully embodied the flexible line of Chopin’s piano music with fluid, powerful movements — a telepathic counterpoint to the live accompaniment. As the piece unfolded, one saw how much work these dancers have put into their upper bodies. Slow, sinuous arm gestures weren’t tacked on as decoration, but grew organically from the tilt of a shoulder, a thrust chest, a swiveling head.

Ensemble unity was another strength of this well-drilled company. A pack of stars couldn’t pull off Liang’s stage-spanning piece, with it’s echoes of 19th century social dance and its wise, Jane Austen-inspired take on the relations between the sexes. Sixteen dancers radiated coyness, joy, and physical exuberance as they pranced and bowed — and those pleasures served to underscore the flickers of violence, which came through in whiplash turns and crack-the-whip releases.

Throughout the program, the Joffrey dancers put their refined technique and mind-boggling athleticism at the service of tightly focused choreographic dramas — a tribute to artistic director Ashley C. Wheater, who has made coaching a priority since coming to the company in 2007. When the male dancers unleashed stage-spanning barrel turns in Caniparoli’s “Incantations,” it could have been an athletic show stopper — just another excuse to applaud — but instead it raised the dervish intensity of a work packed with high-speed turns, whipping legs, head-wrapping arm gestures, and a torquing energy that seemed to extend from the pelvis of the 10 dancers to an abstract decor in which circle and coils featured prominently.