Review: Joffrey Ballet’s “Winter Fire” a must-see

Avi Small

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“Winter Fire” is the newest production at Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet but is nothing like the well-known winter ballet annually danced by Joffrey, “The Nutcracker.” There are no tutus, no fancy costumes, no elaborate sets. Rather, “Winter Fire” is a vibrant, athletic and extraordinarily moving set of three ballets by contemporary choreographers that shows the full range and power of contemporary ballet.

The first piece, “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated,” was choreographed by William Forsythe in 1987 and was a ground-breaking work in the field of ballet. “Middle” disregards traditional ideas about plot or narrative and instead is a ballet composed entirely of movement. The Joffrey dancers calmly walk on and off the stage in different combinations for solos, pas de deux and full group ensembles, all set to Thom Willems’ clanging electronic score. Throughout the 40-minute piece, Forsythe’s choreography uses the vocabulary of traditional ballet and places it within a modern context; the movements are athletic and aggressive, filled with right angles and harsh lines. The athleticism displayed by the Joffrey dancers in “Middle” was impressive, and they performed a technically proficient and emotionally fierce piece.

Next was “After the Rain,” Christopher Wheeldon’s beautiful, if more traditional, 2005 piece. “Rain” was much shorter and included two parts. The first half was set on a gray stage, with three pairs of gray-clad dancers fluidly and intimately moving. Immediately “Rain” provides a stark contrast with “Middle,” as it is far more lyrical and much more emotional, especially set to Arvo Pärt’s melancholy piano-centric score. Two of the pairs walk off and pink light transforms the stage as the third pair – recostumed in white – begin a delicately emotional pas de deux. These two last soloists were incredible, the woman dainty and her partner virile. As she portrayed weakness, he supported her. Together, they created a beautiful portrait of love and weakness.

“Infra” was the final piece danced in “Winter Fire.” Through a series of vignettes that each takes place under an LED screen displaying silhouettes walking back and forth, choreographer Wayne McGregor represents the contradiction of being alone in a crowd or city. In one visually arresting scene, six rectangles of light are illuminated onstage. Slowly, one by one, a pair of dancers enters one of the squares until finally all six squares are filled with dancers moving similarly but not identically; a gesture from one couple is mimicked by another giving structure to what could have been an extraordinarily chaotic mess of dancers. It was a passionate portrayal of loneliness and individuality, with superbly expressive solos from Joffrey dancers.

“Winter Fire” is a celebration of the emotive power of contemporary ballet. The three pieces all create a program which was angry and sad and ultimately beautiful. The Joffrey’s choice of repertoire was excellent and its dancers were top-notch. Even for a ballet neophyte (such as this reviewer), “Winter Fire” is a must-see.

Avi Small