Recess, tutus and Frank Sinatra at the Joffrey’s ‘American Legends’

Avi Small, Writer

Walking into the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University, an audience member could see the gilded stage and the velvet curtain and settle down into his comfortable half-price seat expecting a staid, traditional performance. “American Legends,” a new production from the Joffrey Ballet, gives an immediate jolt to the complacent audience member. The dynamic “American Legends” features four dances by American choreographers, beginning with the playful “Interplay” and culminating with a contemporary classic, Twyla Tharp’s “Nine Sinatra Songs.” Each of these four ballets, featuring the supremely talented Joffrey dancers, shows the promise of contemporary American dance.

The first dance, Jerome Robbins’ “Interplay,” is a playful romp. In “Interplay,” each of the four movements presents different combinations of dancers. “Team-Play,”  the fourth movement, is a highlight. All eight dancers onstage are picked into teams of four and what follows is a lively, recess-style showdown: Each team of dancers competes and builds off their competitors in a manner reminiscent of the Jets and the Sharks in Robbins’ best-known work, “West Side Story.” “Interplay” is light and fun, a breezy beginning to “American Legends.”

Next is “Sea Shadow,” an overlong pas de deux that is the weakest link of “American Legends.” “Sea Shadow” features two Joffrey dancers in a post-apocalyptic, underwater world. Their languid movements express the underwater setting well, but the entire dance feels dull; it lacks the contemporary spark that animates the rest of “American Legends.”

After a short intermission, the audience is treated to “Son of Chamber Symphony,” the most recently choreographed piece in “American Legends.” “Son of Chamber Symphony” takes advantage of the theater’s technical production capabilities, using inventive lighting and John Adams’ clanging contemporary score to augment Stanton Welch’s athletic choreography. This dance takes costumes (especially some wonderful tutus) and movements from traditional ballet and puts them in a very modern context; dancers are all hard lines and rigid angles as “Son of Chamber Symphony” beautifully features their full physicality.

The performance closes with “Nine Sinatra Songs,” Twyla Tharp’s series of nine charming vignettes, each set to a song by Frank Sinatra. Though the prerecorded music is less impressive than the live orchestral performances that precede it, Sinatra’s voice and the talented dancers more than make up for it. Each part of Tharp’s choreography has a deliberate narrative. Most of the vignettes explore different relationships, from a couple falling in love for the first time, to a fiery, passionate affair, to an angry lovers’ quarrel. When the dancers come together in larger group numbers, Tharp shows each relationship in context. “Nine Sinatra Songs” uses dance to beautifully explore the many facets of falling in love.

The Joffrey Ballet is one of the finest ballet companies in the United States and that talent is on full display in “American Legends.” Vibrant and modern, “American Legends” is an excellent introduction to contemporary American ballet.