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A fluid exploration of grief

Emotions are at the forefront in a flowing performance by members of the Joffrey at the Colburn School.

January 30, 2006|Lewis Segal | Times Staff Writer

Seven dancers performing for only one hour cannot take the measure of the Joffrey Ballet in its 50th anniversary season. However, a program titled "Joffrey Live at Zipper Hall" brought to the Colburn School of Performing Arts on Saturday a reminder of the honed athleticism and dedication to contemporary expression that made the company so welcome during its residency at the Los Angeles Music Center from 1982 to 1992.

For those who've seen recent pieces by Jiri Kylian performed by Nederlands Dans Theater (his home company) and the American Ballet Theatre, the fine Joffrey performance of "Return to the Strange Land" offered a revealing look at his style more than 30 years ago, before he moved away from pointe work toward a seamless fusion of ballet and modern dance.

Set to piano pieces by Janacek (securely played by Paul Lewis on a balcony above the stage), this intense four-part work examined the way grief can both isolate a person and inspire support from others, brilliantly exploring fluid groupings, gymnastic body sculpture and, especially, the dancers' ability to flow through classical positions into unexpected modernisms.

In the opening trio, for instance, Maia Wilkins melted from textbook extensions on pointe into anti-balletic turns on her knees. And in her later duet with Willy Shives, she faced the challenge in reverse: rolling rapidly across the stage and then being lifted -- first onto her knees and then up onto pointe. Her technique, concentration and musicality never faltered.

Wilkins' ability to execute the textbook steps of the piece as splendidly as its unorthodox inventions might well inspire any choreographer. But Joffrey artistic director Gerald Arpino gave her virtually no steps at all in "RUTH, Ricordi per Due," a somber 2004 duet with fewer insights about grief and creative movement than Kylian had displayed in 1975.

Pure cirque de ballet, it showcased Shives' knack for lifting Wilkins nonstop, swinging her through the air, balancing her on his torso and pretending -- primarily through face-acting -- that the result had some relationship to either human emotion or music (on tape) attributed to Albinoni. Manipulations of Wilkins' long gown added some variety, but this portentous bagatelle looked woefully out of touch, compared to the unashamedly pop Arpino of 1981, on view during the pas de deux from "Light Rain."

Expertly performed by Valerie Robin and Samuel Pergande to an endlessly repeating thump motif (on tape) by Douglas Adams and Russ Gauthier, it also featured plenty of flashy lifts plus a few momentary opportunities for the ballerina to dance all by herself -- opportunities that demonstrated Robin's taut line and steely command.

Besides the dancers mentioned, the Zipper Hall contingent included Victoria Jaiani, Michael Smith and Thomas Nicholas in "Return to the Strange Land."

When Robert Joffrey ran this company, Arpino made dances like "Light Rain" that hooked an audience new to ballet on the exciting prowess, sensuality and connection to current trends that the Joffrey embodied. The new dancers are potentially just as exciting as their predecessors, but not when Arpino delivers glum exercises about the risen Christ and 25 ways to lift your lover: his output in recent years.

During a question-and-answer session, Joffrey's executive director, Jon H. Teeuwissen, spoke of how the 47-dancer institution is debt-free and planning to acquire a permanent base of operations in Chicago (its home since 1995). But the creative milestones mentioned by Arpino and two associate directors all took place before Robert Joffrey's death in 1988.

Perhaps the company's fiscal health will allow a return to the acquisition of choreographic discoveries (old and new) that distinguished the Joffrey in its glory days. "You can never catch up with innovation," Arpino said Saturday. It might be fascinating to watch him try.

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