The Joffrey Ballet opened its final season at the splendid Auditorium Theater with a program that borrows its title from Justin Peck’s infectious ballet, The Times Are Racing. The evening featured five different works, each confident and creative, collectively shining a light on the mastery that Peck has attained in comparison to the others. It is a matter of creative freedom and self-assurance, of looking forward from now, not relying on the past for recognition of innovation.

Joffrey artists in <i>Commedia</i> © Cheryl Mann
Joffrey artists in Commedia
© Cheryl Mann

Christopher Wheeldon is an intriguing choreographer, recognized as one of the best working in ballet, perhaps working too much. His works rarely vary in movement craftmanship, but they waver in their ability to build excitement, and this reveals a compositional flaw that affects his long ballets like Swan Lake, and seen here too in a short ballet, Commedia, set to Stravinsky’s Pulcinella Suite, which is a reworking of alleged Pergolesi music.

It is not Stravinsky’s best music, and is tame throughout, with notable exceptions coming only later in the piece. Stravinsky himself stated that Diaghilev when commissioning the work for the Ballets Russes in 1920, wanted “a stylized orchestral arrangement” of the Pergolesi. In any case there is so much co-opting from the musical point of view, and Wheeldon matches this dilution, as tame and slow-to-interest as the music.

It is an odd piece of music and a crisp, restrained piece of dancing. Above all, Pulcinella is nowhere to be found, the dancers wear cleverly designed full body leotards with partial diamond shaped harlequin patterns that connect variously when the dancers unite. Neither is commedia dell’arte anywhere to be seen. If you did not know commedia dell’arte and harlequins before the ballet, you would not know them after.

Victoria Jaiani and Stefan Goncalvez in <i>Mono Lisa</i> © Cheryl Mann
Victoria Jaiani and Stefan Goncalvez in Mono Lisa
© Cheryl Mann

Wheeldon is keen to align himself with ballet history and its greats. This is another example of not hitting that mark, while still delivering a pleasing piece. The flip side of mastery is competence, and increasingly this is what we see from Wheeldon. It is a tepid ballet to an odd score, extremely well performed by the Chicago Philharmonic, led by Scott Peck, music director of the Joffrey Ballet as well as Artistic Director of the Philharmonic. The Joffrey Ballet’s commitment to live music uplifts the cultural quality of Chicago

The second act featured three new works including Mono Lisa, a sexy and surly duet to a typewriter clicking away by Itzik Galli. Bliss!, choreographed by Stephanie Martinez, is an impressive piece, set to Stravinsky’s gorgeous chamber Concerto in E flat, known as “Dumbarton Oaks”. This is strangely nowhere identified in the program or press materials. The title, Bliss!, is a direct reference to the man who commissioned the music in 1938, Robert Bliss. Sonorous and plunging into contrasting emotional dynamics, it was rapturously performed by the orchestra.

Temur Suluashvili and Fernando Duarte in <i>The Sofa</i> © Cheryl Mann
Temur Suluashvili and Fernando Duarte in The Sofa
© Cheryl Mann

Especially the men’s ensemble choreography succeeded. This was a piece for six men and two, almost superfluous, women, whose choreography was no match for the music. By contrast the men’s choreography was robust and musical, and revealed real depth among the male dancers. The third piece was a novelty number, Sofa, also by Itzik Galli. He is talented; his work is dramatic and modern, although there is a limit to how much aimless walking into place works. It is an old device by now and needs to have a reason.

The evening closed with Tony Award winning, New York City Ballet choreographer Justin Peck’s ‘ballet-in-sneakers’, The Times are Racing. The sneakers are a gimmick – that really brought people into the theater – but somewhat conceal what an expertly vibrant and creative ballet it really is. Where Wheeldon desires to match Balanchine, Peck does it by not only borrowing structural and contrapuntal devices Balanchine favored, but also by being truly surprising, and above all, the whole ballet is composed to build excitement. At once, bubbly and darkly psychedelic, The Times Are Racing, incorporating tap and hip-hop, barrels along to pumping electronic music by Dan Deacon. The ballet is such theatrical fun, it is easy to overlook how masterfully it is crafted.

Jeraldine Mendoza and ensembe in <i>The Times are Racing</i> © Cheryl Mann
Jeraldine Mendoza and ensembe in The Times are Racing
© Cheryl Mann

2020 marks 25 years since the Joffrey Ballet moved to Chicago. In 2019, director Ashley Wheater received an MBE from the Queen of the United Kingdom, an honor created in 1917, and suited perfectly to Wheater’s standards of dance excellence with which he has directed his career and led the Joffrey. It is telling that the Joffrey is the only company outside the New York City Ballet, to perform Peck’s new work. The company looked splendid, capable of anything. Kudos, Ashley Wheater, MBE.

*****