Cal Performances: Joffrey Ballet remains at forefront of contemporary dance

Cal Performances

The Chicago-based Joffrey Ballet returns March 6-8 to Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall with a diverse program that positions the contemporary ballet company at the forefront of the centuries-old art form. Part of the Cal Performances season, the series includes a free lecture demonstration open to the public, an opening night pre-performance talk, and a community dance class ($10) available to all ages and abilities.

Co-founded in 1956 by dancer/choreographer/teacher Robert Joffrey, and led after Joffrey’s death by his partner and co-founder, choreographer Gerald Arpino from1988 to 2007, the company today operates under artistic director Ashley Wheater. The troupe has partnered with Cal Performances for an ongoing three-appearance, five-year commitment to develop new works and build upon mutual organizational support.

On the two-intermission program this year is Beyond The Shore, a Cal Performances co-commission choreographed by Nicolas Blanc with music by Bay Area-based Mason Bates. The work was developed in part on the UC Berkeley campus, representing a first iteration of the collaborations sought by Cal Performances as it continues to explore deeper partnerships and provide greater access to its programs for students, faculty, staff and the broader Bay Area community.

Blanc, a former principal dancer with San Francisco Ballet, addresses six worldly and otherworldly movements of Bates’ The B-Sides; treating them selectively as stories and collectively as an exploration of interaction.

Two works are performed to the music of Stravinsky: Choreographer Christopher Wheeldon’s 13-section elegant homage to ballet, Commedia, and Stephanie Martinez’s navigation of a lesser known score by the composer in a work titled, Bliss!

In program notes, Martinez explains that the neoclassical ballet loosely follows a narrative about Mildred and Robert Bliss, the couple who commissioned Stravinsky’s Dumbarton Oaks Concerto in 1938 for their 30th wedding anniversary. The Chicago-based choreographer is widely known for creating ballets with dynamic settings, intense athleticism, and heralded for a remarkable ability to invent novel, nuanced ballet-based movements inspired by a score or soundscape. Deconstructing Stravinsky’s complex concerto, said to be itself inspired by a Bach Brandenburg concerto, led Martinez to hear bliss in one section, thus the title.

Choreographer Justin Peck’s The Times Are Racing was a barnstormer upon its New York City Ballet premiere in 2017. Dancers in street clothing — hightop sneakers and leisurewear by costume designer Humberto Leon of Opening Ceremony — show off their command of a cornucopia of dance styles to four tracks from Dan Deacon’s 2012 electronic rock album, America. Grounded in impeccable ballet technique, Peck is unafraid at times to include in the otherwise virtuoso display contrasting moments of pedestrian awkwardness and repose that result in the ballet’s most tender interactions.

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