Joffrey Ballet visits Pittsburgh

Fine art takes many forms. Last weekend, that form was dance as the Joffrey Ballet performed at the Benedum Center for a full house. The show consisted of four separate works spanning different styles and time periods: Ruth, Ricordi Per Due (created in 2003), Sometimes It Snows in April (from Billboards, 1993), Apollo (1928), and The Green Table (1932).

Created by Gerald Arpino, cofounder of the Joffrey Ballet, Ruth, Ricordi Per Due was written to be a duet between Maia Wilkins and Willy Shives. The two gave a nearly flawless performance of two lovers dancing together, interrupted by tragedy when one of them dies. Ruth, Ricordi Per Due served as a very appropriate commencement of the evening’s performances. The show was set to the music of Albinoni; organ and strings provided a soft backdrop to dance that came off as serene, but communicated the incredible strength of Wilkins and Shives.

Sometimes It Snows in April has dancers jumping through the air with their arms and legs out, crossing in geometric patterns to the music of Prince. Taken from Billboards, the first ballet set to rock music, Sometimes is a definitively modern work. The dynamism and energy of the performance cannot be understated; it’s reminiscent of “Shake a Tail Feather” from Blues Brothers, with a kick of contemporary ballet.

Stories are usually told through written or spoken word in literature or film, but they are also communicable through subtle expressions of dance, with costumes and props. Apollo and The Green Table are perfect examples of stories told through dance.

Set to Stravinsky, Apollo starts with the birth of the god Apollo. Unwrapped by handmaidens, the fully grown Apollo (Calvin Kitten) explores life accompanied by the Muses (Poetry, Mime, and Dance and Song). Kitten delivered excellent form, conveying in his expressions an Apollonian strength. Most smitten with the muse Terpsichore (Dance and Song), Apollo ends by ascending to Mount Olympus. Neo-classical with clean and clear movements, dance and story mesh well in Apollo because of its classical backdrop.

A staple of the Joffrey Ballet, The Green Table is an anti-war polemic first performed by the company in 1967. Illustrating the brutality and corruption of war, the timeless piece can easily be applied to current affairs. The opening and closing scenes are very instructive of the period leading up to war. Gentlemen in black debate and disagree over a green table. Their rhetoric yields little and war ensues. A progression of several scenes (The Farewells, The Battle, The Refugees, The Partisan, The Brothel, and The Aftermath) shows the debauchery and inhumanity that accompany conflict. Friday’s performance had Brian McSween in the role of Death, a cross between a Roman general and Germanic barbarian. The Green Table ends where it began, gentlemen in black are once again at the table with nothing resolved. War does not decide who is right; war decides who is left.

The program is well balanced, although the pieces are not thematically related. Ruth, Ricordi Per Due establishes ballet as an art form, a supreme beauty both cold and austere, like that of a sculpture. Sometimes It Snows in April shakes off the cold with lively energy and upbeat music. The remaining two performances illustrate ballet’s ability to tell involving and understandable stories.

The Joffrey Ballet’s history goes back to 1956. It began as the brainchild of ballet teacher Robert Joffrey and choreographer Gerald Arpino. The company, presently based in Chicago, tours the country performing classical and contemporary works. The Joffrey Ballet was also the subject of the film The Company (2003).