- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 2, 2002

The Joffrey Ballet, now called the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago, excels in at least two distinct styles. The two programs the company is dancing at the Kennedy Center this week are vivid examples.

At its opening evening earlier this week, the Joffrey offered a fascinating look at important dance history with three works by the legendary dancer and controversial choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky.

The program this weekend features "Kettentanz," created by Gerald Arpino, now the company's artistic director and formerly its resident choreographer. He, together with such creators as Twyla Tharp, brought an exuberant, youthful zing to the company.

Besides being a distinguished director, the late Robert Joffrey was an ardent amateur dance historian. One side of his company's repertoire contained revivals from earlier in the century, such as Kurt Joos' "The Green Table," and "Parade," with its sets by Pablo Picasso.

"Nijinsky Mystique," as the program earlier this week was called, included the boldly barbaric "Le Sacre du Printemps," or "Rite of Spring," set to Igor Stravinsky's pounding score. Musically, this piece had ushered in a new era but the dance itself disappeared after a few performances and seemed lost forever. A graduate student, Millicent Hodson, approached Mr. Joffrey about research she was doing on this lost "Sacre." He encouraged and supported her in her reconstruction efforts and ended up, as the program notes, offering "artistic supervision of reconstruction."

That is probably one of the reasons this "Sacre," first performed by the company in 1987, a year before Mr. Joffrey's death, was the most stunningly successful of the evening's ballets. The primeval energy and force of the dance, with its startling rhythms, the masses of dances in colorful peasant costumes and the sheer weight and intensity of its movements, overwhelmed.

It is not hard to understand the uproar the ballet caused at its 1913 Paris premiere. Coming a mere 23 years after the creation of the refined pageantry of "The Sleeping Beauty" (just danced here by the Kirov Ballet), the brashness of "Sacre" and its discarding of classical technique must have seemed unsettling even frightening.

Its opening night was famously filled with pandemonium. With Stravinsky in the pit, Nijinsky stood in the wings shouting the counts to the dancers, who couldn't hear the music over the audience's din. Jean Cocteau reported that a dowager rose in her box and exclaimed, "I've never been so insulted in my life." When the dancers laid their heads on their folded hands, someone in the audience shouted, "Is there a dentist in the house?"

The re-creation of this watershed moment from fragments of notated scores, dancers' memories and artists' sketches is a thrilling achievement, even if Ms. Hodson had to fill in many passages.

What the evening clearly reveals is what an original mind Nijinsky possessed. Turning his back on the classical pyrotechnics of which he was such a master, he developed angular, often two-dimensional movements, and often discarded conventional grace for strong muscular gestures.

For many years the conventional wisdom was that Nijinsky, a genius as a dancer who eventually went insane, was in over his head in the experimental works he made for his mentor, Serge Diaghilev. His sister, Bronislava Nijinska, dispels that myth in her autobiography with her description of the avid way he would work at home devising new, iconoclastic ways of moving.

What these performances reveal about the Joffrey is a company in much stronger shape than we have seen in recent years. The company is considerably larger and the dancers gave a fervent performance of its ritualistic, fiercely pounding formations. They whip up the stage into a swirling mass of humanity climaxed by Deanne Brown's performance as the Chosen One.

The role was notorious for being a killer, but after Paul Taylor created his own version of this frenzied solo in his idiosyncratic "Sacre," the current incarnation of the Nijinsky version seems relatively tame.

The same was not true of the title role in "L'Apres-midi d'un Faune," danced to Claude Debussy's hypnotic score by Davis Robertson opening night. The Joffrey has a tendency to punch up its effects and Mr. Robertson's pelvic spasms in the erotic ending were given more than their due.

Nijinsky's third ballet on the program, "Jeux," was undoubtedly the least authentic. This was signaled by Ms. Hodson's copyrighting of the "reconstructed choreography" as her own. Danced by Deborah Dawn, Maia Wilkins and Willy Shives opening night, "Jeux" is a trio for two women and a man that hints at both lesbianism and a menage a trois.

Part of the evening's impact came from the sets and costumes, including Leon Bakst's handsome ones for "Jeux" and, especially, "Faune." Kenneth Archer reconstructed the striking Nicholas Roerich sets and costumes for "Sacre."

This weekend will bring a mixed bill, beginning with Mr. Arpino's "Kettentanz." This is one of his most appealing ballets all lightness and fresh swirling patterns.

The works of Antony Tudor are seldom performed these days, but Washington is being treated to three of them, danced by three different companies. Last week the Washington Ballet performed his affecting "Dark Elegies"; this weekend the Joffrey is offering one of his most inspired "Jardin aux Lilas" ("Lilac Garden"); and next week American Ballet Theatre will dance Mr. Tudor's "Dim Lustre."

"Lilac Garden" throbs with romantic yearning. Set to Ernest Chausson's haunting "Poeme for Violin and Orchestra," its story might have come out of Guy de Maupassant. Mr. Tudor has created one of the most arresting images in all ballet: While the violin soars to a climax, the dancers suddenly freeze in a tableau as the heroine's fate is sealed.

The well-rounded program concludes with Agnes de Mille's popular "Rodeo."


WHAT: Joffrey Ballet of Chicago

WHEN: 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. today and 2 p.m. tomorrow

WHERE: Kennedy Center Opera House, F Street and New Hampshire Avenue NW

TICKETS: $26 to $65

PHONE: 202/467-4600


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