Joffrey Ballet’s 7th Annual Winning Works Review – Good Energy!

Editor’s Note:  At a recent Choreographer’s tour of the MCA’s exhibit “Merce Cunningham: Common Time” three of the participating choreographers—Ayako Kato, J’Sun Howard, and Adam Rose— clearly friends, created a huddle in the lobby outside the exhibit after the tour, talking about Merce and more.  Each a brilliant choreographer with their own credit list, they have joined together here too and let us listen in on their conversation about a performance experience they all shared—Joffrey Ballet’s 7th Annual Winning Works performance.

The Winning Works choreographers had won a Joffrey sponsored competition among ALAANA (African, Latino(a), Asian, Arab and Native American) artists, to showcase their original and innovative work.  The performance at the Harold Washington Library Center of the winners' works was held to provide them with a platform to showcase their original and innovative work.  This year’s winners were:  Shannon Alvis; Sean Carmon; Karen Gabay; and Jimmy Orrante

Read below and listen in on how these three choreographers share the experience with each other—part of Picture this Post’s ongoing series to see dance through choreographers’ eyes.

Ayako: “It was brilliant to witness ‘upcoming/established minority choreographers’ contemporary ballet works performed by committed and talented international and national young pre-professional dancers of the Joffrey Academy Trainees and Joffrey Studio Company.’ That’s how the show was billed.  And this show certainly showed  me that, ‘There is a suitable way of expression for each individual.’ What did you think?”

Adam: “I agree with this statement— “There is a suitable way of expression for each individual.” Ballet as an art form, however, works with a certain standardization of individual expression. It molds bodies into sculptures that move in prescribed ways. The first piece, Scend choreographed by Jimmy Orrante, embodied this classical approach to dance. The music by Luigi Boccherini set an appropriately classic tone, complemented by red costuming for the dancers.“

Joffrey Ballet’s 7th Annual Winning Works Review – Good Energy
Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works winner "Suite Hearts" by Sean Aaron Carmon Photo Credit: Todd Rosenberg

Ayako: “Danced by six pairs of women and men—total 12‑I too felt Scend is the most traditional of the four pieces in terms of: kinship with music; gender specific costumes;the structure of the piece; having female dancers wear pointe shoes; and overall how movement is set. The partnering and how dancers moved from one formation to the other as an ensemble in unison, with the canon so orderly and with such clarity was splendid. Because of that, the course and positions of arm movements, which went slightly off from tradition became more significant and drew our attention. Transitions from ensemble to duets and solos, and again coming back to ensemble, were very pleasing to the eyes.”

Adam:”Watching the interlocking movement patterns of this performance felt satisfying; and also strangely alien, like a carefully staged reconstruction of the past. Ballet, as a part of Western classicism, once laid claim to a universality and transcendance that it has now lost. And I see this as a good thing.  We can now view it from a distance, as something very particular, with an idiosyncratic vocabulary drawn from a specific historical context. The classical has become a niche within today’s culture market.

“The second performance, Moonlight choreographed by Shannon Alvis, worked with its classical elements in a different way.”

Ayako: “The gentle and translucent tone of Moonlight was calming. The flow and the freeness of the first half are enhanced by loose silky white non-gender specific costumes and music by contemporary post-minimalist composer Max Richter. The transformation of dance happened often from group to individuals as in Scend.  In Moonlight though, these transformations are not done in geometric lines, but more through flexible formation and sudden shifts by drifts out or away. Yet the connection was still sustained with intangible intensity between the dancers. The vocal sound also gave a sense of humanity and spoke to the individual being a part of the whole. In the flow, the movement had a lot of sways, tilts, curves, and moments of stillness that looked irregular because our perceptions are more based in nature’s rhythms.  Yet, it was well choreographed and physically well expressed by the dancers. 

“All dancers were wearing ballet shoes, and not pointe shoes for the female dancers.  This allowed dancers to sense more gravity through their bodies toward the floor, creating energetic grounded sequences.. The second half used music by Impressionist composer Claude Debussy. The lighting reflecting on the costumes certainly created the atmosphere— we are under a big full moon with moonlight shining upon us.

Adam: Scend returned to some of the original source material of classicism in its use of the music of Luigi Boccherini, while “Moonlight opened with music by Max Richter. As a post-minimalist, contemporary composer, Richter’s music represents a reboot of the classical, its repackaging and integration into the culture industry.

“I liked this music. I’d never heard it before, and the program didn’t list the exact name of the piece, so I searched and found it,Path 5 (deltafrom the album Sleep by Richter.Sleep has a total playing time of 8 hours, meant to mimic the actual duration of a good night’s rest. It turns out this same piece of music, Path 5 (delta) made an appearance as the soundtrack in a film trailer for TRANSFORMERS 5 made for the 2017 Super Bowl.

“This says something about the role of classicism and classical music in contemporary culture. While not many people may go to see the symphony, classical music lives on as the standard soundtrack accompaniment to Hollywood films. Why, I don’t know. But Shannon Alvis’ choreography for Moonlight worked wonderfully with this haunting, evocative music by Richter. The dancers appeared in white costumes, grouping themselves in various tableaus, walking eerily forward and back, and then suddenly breaking into flourishes of lyrical movement.

“Both of these works, by Orrante and Alvis, lead me into a meditation on the meaning of ballet and classicism in contemporary culture.”

Ayako: “The third piece presented was Hopeful Undertones by Karen Gabay. The piece was created by a female choreographer who has a 15 year-old daughter. The choreographer’s note says that the piece is’... dedicated to the fragility of teenagers. Growing out of their playful stage of childhood, teenagers today have a much more difficult climate to navigate through adolescence. This generation of teens has hit puberty where technology and social media has transformed society, rooting the rise of anxiety and depression.’

“This piece looked very age appropriate for dancers who are from late teens to early twenties. They looked more lively, having fun, dancing this piece with their peers. At the same time, the choreography reminded me of my own good bittersweet old days—filled with insecurity, struggle, agony, yet also dreams and hopes for the unknown future. The melodious at times, as well as rhythmic, non experimental, music by contemporary composer Oliver Davis was used to express the emotional theme of each scene.  This music elicits empathy from the audience. The regular colorful street clothes costumes and  pointe shoes for the girls somehow matching and creating an active feeling.  They also allow the dancers to move technically with more expressive manners and with more speedy turns and sharp forms.”

J’Sun: “Hopeful Undertones also looked like it could have been a Snapchat story— brief moments that collage together showing the messiness of coming of age. Whether the messiness is good or bad, this social media platform does, at least, let teenagers express themselves.

“I appreciate this nod to trying to complicate how narratives are choreographed in classical ballet traditions. The rhythmic quality of the music works to make this messiness tolerable or conquerable. I also appreciated the section on a teenager discovering their sexual identity. Even though we are in the 21st century and things should be better than they are, gender identity can be difficult to navigate. Those stories are more important than ever since they can give hope to a teenager who may be struggling with their identity. Hopeful Undertones gave light to youth.”

Ayako: “The fourth piece was Suite Heartsby Sean Aaron Carmon. The choreographer had a wonderful rhythmic sense. He also gave the sense of space that goes beyond the stage by matching the movement of the dancers on stage with the dancers who enter and exit from the wings. It looked like the echo of call and response, happening somewhere else in the universe. The blue unitard costumes with female dancers on pointe also gave it a beyond earth feeling.”

J’Sun: “In Suite Hearts, when thedancers danced I thought of electricity, especially if the dance was about "saying everything we wish we could say with simply a glance." How much can you say within that moment? I think this is why there was so much movement —very within the Alvin Ailey Horton technique-esque pedigree— to capitalize on the moment and to be fearless in your attempt.

“In the beginning there was a jolt that cut me out of the rapid velocity of the choreography. I thought of an awkward glance that forces you to regroup and get back in the game—to be chased or not be chased, to be the chaser or not to be the chaser? I wanted more moments of the dancers being caught,,in a lift or partnering phrase. It would have crystallized this idea of catching a glance. What are hearts for, if not catching?”

Ayako: “The young pre-professional dancers who performed are very talented.  They are able to dance these many choreographic varieties of style at such young ages.

“How contemporary ballet is exploring and cultivating new works with flexibility and exceptionsto ballet rules is truly exciting. It is fascinating that Joffrey Ballet is giving these young dancers opportunities to open up their mind/body and expose them to the new styles of movement and training that nurtures their capabilities to perform a wide range of work. Hopefully, more of those ballet dancers will be interested in not only dancing, but also in watching contemporary experimental dance works that are not directly originated from ballet. Then, the curious mind will askwhy they are dancing what they are dancing, and will bring them deeper and richer expression as dancers, and eventually as choreographers.

“The Cindy Pritzker Auditorium in the Harold Washington Library Center is a beautiful mid-size proscenium venue conveniently located in the heart of downtown. It will be wonderful if this theater is used more and visited by more audiences and supporters of the performing arts.

“I highly recommend others to check out this Joffrey Ballet Winning Works production in the future. This is an experience that gives you good energy.”

Joffrey Ballet has announced their 2017 – 2018 season and also has details on their upcoming April, 2017 performances on their website.

Editor's Note - This is part of Picture this Post's series - CHOREOGRAPHERS' EYES - DANCERS EXPLAIN DANCE.  Find more here.

Learn more about dance by seeing dance through dancers eyes in the Picture This Post series, “Choreographers’ Eyes - Dancers Explain Dance”.  Watch this video preview of the story here— 

Read more dance reviews by dancers in the Picture This Post Round-Up, “Choreographers’ Eyes - Dancers Explain Dance”.  Watch this video preview of the story here —

Credit notes--

All photos by Todd Rosenberg.

All costumes by Gabriel Brandon-Hanson

Red costumes Scend

White costumes Moonlight

Multicolored costumes Hopeful Undertones

Blue leotards Suite Hearts

About the Author:

Ayako Kato is a Japanese native and Chicago-based experimental dancer, choreographer, improviser, teacher, and curator. Since 1998, she has been the artistic director of Ayako Kato/Art Union Humanscape, presenting her multidisciplinary work extensively in the US, Japan and Europe. In 2016, she received a 3Arts Award in Dance, Meier Achievement Award, and was named Top 5 Chicago Choreographers by Newcity Stage.

J'Sun Howard is from Chattanooga, TN. A Chicago Dancemaker’s Forum Lab Artist (2014), an Illinois Arts Council grantee (2015), his choreography has appeared at local venues Links Hall, Northwestern University, Sonotheque, Lincoln Square Theatre, Insight Arts/Center for New Possibilities, Epiphany Church, and Rumble Arts. J’Sun has performed for many choreographers including Malcolm Jason Low, Asimina Chremos, Sara Wookey, Paige Cunningham, Selene Carter, but most extensively with collaborators Darrell Jones and Damon Green in their research of (e)feminized ritual performance, which received a 2013 Bessie Award in support of Hoo-Ha (for your eyes only).

Adam Rose acts as the Creative Control of Antibody Corporation. Antibody creates performance works incorporating music, movement, and languages both real and invented.
Since its founding in 2009, Antibody has created and performed works in Chicago, the United States, Mexico, Canada, Europe, and Russia.
Rose graduated from Antioch College in 2008, where he earned a BA in Dance. Awards he has received include a Lab Artist Award from the Chicago Dancemakers Forum (2014), and a Tanne Award from the Tanne Foundation (2013).
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