The programming choices that artistic director Ashley Wheater made to re-introduce the Joffrey Ballet to New York were curious. With respect to the gala program, I understand not wanting to put up the old warhorse pas de deux that we see all the time here because it’s impossible to compete with the top dancers who rule this city. Joffrey’s best dancers are very good, but not good enough to compete at that level. Still, I don’t understand why he put up a program of middle of the road, unexceptional ballets for such a special occasion. More was needed. Then, bringing only a Romeo and Juliet with significant shortcomings as the sole representation of the company’s engagement at Lincoln Center seems shortsighted. I can’t help feeling that an opportunity was missed. I was hoping to walk out of the theater suffused with optimism that a great dance company had returned in triumph after overcoming financial adversity. I needed to be reminded of what we lost when the company had to leave New York City to survive.

April Daly and Fabrice Calmels in <i>Bells</i> © Cheryl Mann
April Daly and Fabrice Calmels in Bells
© Cheryl Mann

Opening the program was Yuri Possokhov’s Bells, choreographed to solo piano pieces of Rachmaninov played by Grace Kim and Kuang-Hao Huang. I try to make allowances for piano accompanists at dance performances. That said, many of Rachmaninoff’s pieces are among the most difficult piano works extant and not meant for any but the best of the expert players. It’s one thing to listen to the Op. 23 no. 2 and think that it would be ideal music for a dance but quite another to put it on stage and have it played by your in-house accompanists. They may sound fine to you in your studio but they’re not nearly up to the level required to tackle an incredibly difficult piece of music. It needs to explode from the piano in an emotional torrent but it didn’t come anywhere near that. The duet with Victoria Jaiani and Temur Suluashvili, set to the more approachable second movement of the Sonata no. 2. Op 36, was easily the most successful dancing of the night. They partnered beautifully together and the playing was spot on. You have to work within your limitations.

Myles Thatcher’s Body of Your Dreams was humorous and breezy. It uses what sounds like a recording of an infomercial about getting the body of one’s dreams, spliced into a rhythmic soundtrack that was funny as well as engaging. It refers to being fat and overcoming it without any effort which is quite amusing while watching top notch professional dancers flying around the stage in workout togs, all of whom have that body and who have sweated for decades to be able to make it look that easy. Its light humor and celebration of the company’s athleticism made it a winner.

Closing out the show was Christopher Wheeldon’s Fool’s Paradise. It was a lovely enough mood piece complete with murky lighting and falling golden leaves and backed by Joby Talbot’s evocative score. It had several pas de deux, trios, ensemble dances and was well constructed and well danced. Still, I’m hard pressed to say that this was something that belonged on a gala program. Missing in this work was any sense that it said anything significant about the Joffrey Ballet’s values. Nice enough but ultimately forgettable.

Victoria Jaiani, Temur Suluashvili, and Rory Hohenstein in <i>Fool's Paradise</i> © Cheryl Mann
Victoria Jaiani, Temur Suluashvili, and Rory Hohenstein in Fool's Paradise
© Cheryl Mann

I was hoping for more from this gala. Was that due to my own memories of seeing the company while Joffrey still led it or was it something else? Did I fall into the trap of nostalgia? I think this program needed to remind us of the longstanding history we have with Robert Joffrey’s company and re-establish that bond. It’s a fine company still. There are lots of very good dancers and there are still flashes of that sensibility that made the Joffrey Ballet a place that welcomed offbeat dancers of great talent. Some were tiny, some huge. Some did not conform to the ideal physique of classical ballet but managed to be wonderfully lyrical or emotionally compelling. The repertoire was similarly inclined. This was, after all, the first American company to stage the Kurt Joos masterpiece, The Green Table. The program on this gala occasion did not remind me of that and it should have.