Thunder rolls, rods of neon white flicker above. Fog spills across the stage, flowing into the audience. Dancers cluster on stage opposite the flashing rods. They are dressed in black leotards stretching in one sheet of black from under the jawline to the tips of their fingers. Their hands are clearly articulated, fingers extended like feathered wings. Their bodies and arms curve bird-like and exotic above the swirling, dense fog. They float above clouds.

The Joffrey Ballet performs Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s Mammatus
© Cheryl Mann

So begins Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s Mammatus, presented by The Joffrey Ballet at Cal Performances’ Zellerbach Hall. The ballet, set to Michael Gordon’s Weather One, was premiered in Chicago in 2015. Its Berkeley performance was the culmination of Joffrey’s collaboration with the arts organization, the first of three residencies that will occur over the next five years.

In Ochoa’s inventive tribute to the natural world and its air-born creatures, the dancers flock in and out of groups, driven by the music’s compelling rhythms. The choreography is detailed, the arms complex, with hands patting the air, dropping to the shoulder, pushing through the line of the body, which in turn shifts and tilts and runs. Every small movement is defined in the body’s black against cool lights. Suddenly, the stage lights turn red like a moving front of warm air, two dancers engage in a powerful duet, and then a new front of cold light moves in and a new duet begins. Finally, the music subsides, settling into the sound of weather, and the elegantly limbed Victoria Jaiani appears, dressed in white to the fingertips, to dance a duet partnered by Dylan Gutierrez, while black-clad dancers tumble around them. 

The program opened with Justin Peck’s In Creases, set to Philip Glass’ Four Movements for Two Pianos. The company pianists, Grace Kim and Michael Moricz, were upstage while the dancers performed center and downstage. The dancers spun through abstract geometries, beginning with circles of four, then three, then four again, dissolving into lines. This movement of circular to linear characterized the minimalist qualities of this very neo-classical piece. Rory Hohenstein separated from the ensemble for a brief solo, showing he can pirouette as easily as a planet spinning on its axis.

The Joffrey Ballet performs Justin Peck's In Creases
© Cheryl Mann

The company’s ballet master and principal coach Nicolas Blanc choreographed the following piece, Encounter, a duet to a section of John Adams’ Saxophone Concerto. Smoky and sensual, the music has a jazzy sound reminiscent of modernist and impressionist music. Melodic lines of the concerto reminded the choreographer of Debussy’s Prélude à l’Après-midi d’un Faune, and he included references to Nijinsky’s iconic choreography. At one point the man frames his muse – arms outstretched, hands flat, fingers together, miming the hooves of the mythic faun. Blanc’s lyrical choreography was danced by Alberto Velazquez portraying a man haunted by visions of desire with Victoria Jaiani as the muse who inhabits those desires. Earlier in the company’s residency, Blanc worked on a longer new piece, which premieres in Chicago in February 2018. Like Encounter, the choreography set to Mason Baker’s B sides, is poetic and dynamic, with complex and evocative duets.

The program’s fourth piece was Alexander Eckman’s Joy. Commissioned by the Joffrey and premiered in April 2017, this piece is a tribute to our most heart-lifting emotion, and veers wildly from the comic to the witty. Set to a potpourri of rock, jazz, electronic and popular dance music, the score is held together by Eckman’s voice-over, which asks haunting and bad-boy questions: Do you know which dancer feels joy? Do you know who’s faking it? Can you dance this at your office tomorrow? The ensemble, which includes the entire company, embodies different ideas of joy. One dancer is watering a tree with a huge blue watering can. Someone is doing handstands. Everyone is boogieing. Suddenly, there is only one ballerina on stage. She’s carrying her shoes, she calls out to the audience, “I call this the shoe drop.” She drops her pointe shoes and they clatter on the floor: “I love dropping my shoes.” Soon the stage is full of ballerinas, in nothing but flesh-colored skivvies, their hair unbound, all dropping their pointe shoes – clatter, bang, clatter. A white neon flamingo descends from the flies, and as it does the girls sit on the floor and put on their pointe shoes. Standing, they run and cluster, walk and parade. They are like a flurry of naiads, wild and beautiful.

The Joffrey Ballet performs Alexander Ekman's Joy
© Cheryl Mann

The Joffrey Ballet has flourished under Ashley Wheater, now in his tenth year as Artistic Director. Taking Joffrey’s original remit of sustaining an eclectic contemporary ballet company, Wheater has extended this initial impulse reforming the company into one that is diverse and dynamically experimental. In doing so he is creating dance that reimagines the exquisite beauty that humanity is capable of.