Joffrey Ballet's long-awaited engagement at Northrop auditorium was a mix of pristine neoclassical form, emotionally driven expression and a dash of urban chic.
Originally slated for 2021, the Northrop Centennial Commission, "Of Mice and Men," was postponed to this year because of the pandemic. But it got moved again when Northrop's roof partially collapsed in January. The show finally went on Saturday without a hitch.
The Chicago-based company displayed its perfect synchronicity with George Balanchine's "Serenade," set to Tchaikovsky's "Serenade for Strings." It was the first ballet the ethnic Georgian, Russian-American Balanchine created after moving to the U.S. He had founded the School of American Ballet to develop dancers in a style he had created and set the new work for them, which they performed in 1934.
Balanchine's choreography seemed deceptively simple at first. Wearing long tutus, the large group of female dancers all moved in perfect unity as they flowed through classical ballet positions. As the piece progressed, the dancers' harmony of movement became quite impressive, with the patterns in Balanchine's choreography turning more complex.
The latter portion of the ballet involved an intriguing sequence beginning with one of the dancers falling to the ground. A male dancer entered toward the fallen woman, a third female dancer blindfolding his eyes. An interlude of gorgeous lifts and aching beauty followed. It was a mesmerizing work, performed with a live orchestra.
"Serenade" was followed by John Steinbeck's classic "Of Mice and Men," choreographed by Cathy Marston. Academy Award nominated composer Thomas Newman created a masterpiece score for the work, bringing in different flavors of American music — folk, roots, blues and more — which all propelled the plot forward and added to the emotional intensity.
The piece about best friends George and Lennie during the Depression era was set as a flashback to a horrible nightmare. George's character was performed by two dancers — Xavier Núñez and Alberto Velazquez. They personified George living through the events of the story and expressing his inner turmoil as he came to grips with his own inability to stop the tragedy from happening. Dylan Gutierrez played Lennie with a sweet vulnerability of a giant that does not know his strength.
Lorenzo Savoini's set was spare. It was made of benches that got manipulated throughout the piece and ominous wood platforms that loomed over the characters, closing them in. His lighting design was made of the warm colors of dusk.
Joffrey closed out the evening with Justin Peck's "The Times Are Racing," an edgy, modern ballet piece with hints of hip-hop and popular dance and a reference to the Beatles. At times ebullient, it throbbed with a fast-paced energy as dancers in shorts, sneakers and oversized shirts raced toward a dramatic finish.