Joffrey Occupies Berkeley’s Zellerbach with Talent and Courage
Under the new artistic leadership of former San Francisco Ballet ballet master, Ashley Wheater, Joffrey Ballet returned to Berkeley’s Zellerbach Auditorium for the first time since its 2007 appearance here, a more homogenous ensemble, yet fully able to reach into a broad-ranging repertoire represented by three pieces: Age of Innocence (Edwaard Liang), After the Rain (Christopher Wheeldon), and the storied The Green Table by Kurt Jooss.
When a generation of a certain age sees the title “Age of Innocence,” what comes to mind is Jane Austen’s application of high-minded prose to melodramatic plots. Here we see a précis of the Austen sensibility, evoked more subtly in the unbleached muslin Edwardian costumes than the movement itself, though taken together they represent a feint in the direction of simplicity in an era that was by no means uncomplicated. While the choreography takes us partway there, the (taped) Philip Glass and Thomas Newman musical score leads us onto a timeline several steps into the more musically iconoclastic Twentieth Century.
Women in white rush in stage left, while their male counterparts led by the imposing Fabrice Calmels head for stage right. A backdrop consisting of three carmine-red drapes tethered at their centers reaches from above to below.
After bent knee runs, low to the floor, the men swing their partners like pendulums, and fall into formation in parallel lines that then crisscross into a wind-brake shape.
Stringed instruments pluck out a Middle Eastern wail, and in “First Dialogue,” the doll-like, San Francisco City Ballet-trained Jeraldine Mendoza (original spelling: Mendonça) and Mauro Villanueva, offer a now-flowing, now crab-like, but always well-placed and masterfully-rendered pas de deux.
Men fall into juicy crushes of second position pliés, saut de Basque triple tours, and wax uber-masculine-athletic as they lunge into large, land-grabbing jumps. Four women in long dresses are the entourage that shuttles in Victoria Jaiani in a short tutu. In “Obey Thee,” Jaiani and Calmels dance a musically brilliant duet, where his phenomenal strength finesses the long and languorous lift they achieve, initiated by Calmels casually bending a wrist, grabbing hold of Jaiani’s foot, and then the rest of her compliantly ends up overhead! She is no wimp either, and by virtue of a strong back, can deepen her arabesque until it is low and parallel to the floor.
In triplet combinations that follow, dancers caress the notes, pulling us into their wake as if we were tethered to their momentum like water skiers.
In After the Rain, male and female dancers wear verdigris-hue leotards. The women pull the men into position from the floor so that the men can lift them.
April Daly and Rory Hohenstein do light and reedy swivels. Victoria Jaiani takes arabesque, and Fabrice Calmels slowly descends to his knees. Chimes sound in the distance, and the steps glaze the floor’s surface as if propelled by a light coat of rain.
The Arvo Pärt score thunders and with help from Jack Mehler, lightens. Hohenstein sends Daly into wind-buffeted lifts that take the shape of an umbrella blown inside out.
The three women return as a triad, and Jaini and Calmels begin a heart-rending adagio, a pas de deux touched by tenderness and intimacy that we rarely see on the stage. Side by side, they slowly rock and move their heads in a manner that deserves to be called a study because it encompasses all the subtle motions of contentment that only animals unselfconsciously display. Their arms create a circle that holds a sacred space for their bond. Originating in the shoulders’ epaulement, the legs and feet go step, step together and back en ronde. These are denuded, effortless expressions, kited when he lifts her and then turns her around on the floor. She is zephyr-like, long dark hair unloosed. The movement is more pneumatic than percussive, with each breath a kind of caesura in the choreography. In such a long adagio with extended lines, one must maintain a consistency of pacing which is ever present in this interpretation. There is a remarkable softness as Calmels extends himself, letting his arms out and then bringing them half in.
If our standard for whether Jooss’s The Green Table endures the test of time is how effective it is in capturing pacifist sentiment, we may find that later works strike a more affecting note. However, as an explication of the arrogance of power devolving from ownership and control by the rich of the world’s resources and the ordnance that locks their odious strong box, The Green Table occupies an exalted place in detailing the who and how of war-making. This is not a squealing plea for gun control to stop so-called Black on Black or domestic violence. Nor is it the condemnation of a war-mad society reflected in the modern-day psycho who ends his miserable life by taking down a quotient of schoolchildren or mall shoppers. This is a piece about what underlies the death agony of a prolonged historical period. In the opening scene, we see the green-covered conference table where a collection of cynical bourgeois “Gentlemen in Black,” meet in top hats and mourning coats. They wear the pallor or florid complexions of the here-debauched, there-depraved slavers and merchants of death. Their exaggerated gestures and poses are the body language acquired from years of confecting artful rationalizations for the blood price exacted by the earnest pursuit of destroying the capital of their rivals, along with the wholesale slaughter of what they regard as the lesser of social classes in order to achieve their nefarious goals. They rock back and forth salaciously to rumba or tango rhythms, flashing white-gloved hands and the spats on their feet. They step onto the table with the same clubby relish that spirits their stepping on us. A gun’s loud report announces the misbegotten mission that shall result from their undistinguished deliberations.
If an awareness of World War I was not transmitted to you via after-dinner anecdotes from relatives who witnessed it, and instead arrived as a consequence of turning the musty pages of an outdated textbook, the representations of that brutal war may seem antiquated or at best, quaint. Thanks to TV, that social class who makes war and the propaganda that advances the drumbeat of support for it, we have visual representations of the carnage incurred during World War I. We have Downton Abbey and Steven Spielberg’s story about a horse, and the unmistakable message that one and all, rich and poor, are called upon to sacrifice for the advance of civilization. In the context of this media orgy, it is very courageous of companies like Houston Ballet to show Christopher Bruce’s Swan Song, and Joffrey Ballet to revive The Green Table, because Jooss cuts through all the balderdash of sacrifice and advancing civilization. He leaves no doubt about why and for whom wars are fought. In his work we see no remote-controlled drones and the symptom bearers are not the burka-enfolded victims and widows of today’s Middle East and Silk Road nations. Rather, we encounter peasant Refugees, The Partisan, the survivors of a section in the piece called The Aftermath, and the representation of Death by Dylan Gutierrez as a Darth Vader-like pervasive presence with outstretched hands. He comes with a certain remove that we are not accustomed to any more, given the grotesque internet/cable death culture transmissions we see every day of scenes in Syria, Egypt and Afghanistan.
Here the killing machine looks more rudimentary: The drone didn’t swipe your life from you on your way to the corner market. You might have been hiding or starving when the rifle butt or bayonet ended your life in a protracted agony that lasted hours instead of seconds. The broad second position stance suggesting a risky and best-defense-is-a good-offense last-ditch effort, and the runner bearing a white flag of surrender, the goose-step march of actual ground soldiers, the men caught bare-chested wearing just suspenders, offer something scenically quite different of torture than the kind we see meted out by water boards and Koran-defacing sadists at Camp Delta.
There’s a cabaret feeling about the way this piece trains the spotlight on every kind of suffering that the Gentlemen in Black extract from their low-tech arsenal, and the piano plays cabaret music to remind us of what those gentlemen who are the real cannibals are doing while the poor die their miserable deaths. We see an ensemble buried in mud, as jazz steps to that same music send one perfect specimen of a soldier (Rory Hohenstein) hopping over and between corpses.
As the body count mounts, we are reminded that women are not, as New Age feminists would have us believe, natural anti-warriors. A tableau of women in travel dress assembles. In contradistinction to them we see peasant women, girls hovering at the edges of the tableau, and the soldier attending his grenade launcher. Just when we think we cannot stand to see more, music we recall from Jiri Kylian’s La Cathédral Engloutie, reminds us that in his piece, those same common people are washed over by a giant tidal wave. In retrospect, and by comparison to Joos’s, Kylian’s work strikes us as an act of mercy. The courage of this company is a reminder that art has a role to play not only in re-enacting the artifice of past pleasures, but also awakening us to the real horrors of the present.
For more information on the Joffrey Ballet tour, click on: http://joffrey.org/ontheroad