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Joffrey passes stylistic tests, retains warmth


The verdict is unequivocal: In "All Stars," its magnificent fall program at the Auditorium Theatre, the Joffrey Ballet (expertly accompanied by the Chicago Sinfonietta) is dancing as it has never danced before.

Not only is the company meeting every rigorous technical and stylistic challenge posed by the ballets of three master choreographers -- George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins and Christopher Wheeldon -- but in learning these works (from exceptional coaches), they also have retained the warmth and sheer joy of propulsion so characteristic of the Joffrey, while assuming a truly starry quality.

The first supremely daunting test came with Balanchine's "Stravinsky Violin Concerto," a ravishing neoclassical exercise in which two staggeringly difficult pas de deux are framed by sharply executed group sequences -- one quite formal and symmetrical, the other a playful contemporary twist on the folkloric.

The pas de deux were danced by two of the company's most accomplished, long-limbed beauties (April Daly, paired with Miguel Angel Blanco, and Victoria Jaiani, partnered with great tenderness by real-life husband Temur Suluashvili). Daly, with her wonderfully confident, all-American ebullience, brought a sexy, independent panache to impossibly serpentine moves and acrobatic backbends, while Jaiani, in the more intimate and emotionally intense duet, was like a piece of origami paper, constantly being folded and manipulated into the shapes of love.

Bravura ballet technique and folk dance fever took a more traditional yet wholly eye-popping turn in Balanchine's "Tarantella," performed with brilliance and exuberance by two perfectly matched spitfires, Yumelia Garcia and Derrick Agnoletti. Irresistible.

Then it was on to Wheeldon with "After the Rain," a hauntingly dreamy work at once erotic and spiritual. Though Wheeldon pays grand homage to Balanchine here, the ballet, to music by Arvo Part, is very much his own heartstoppingly beautiful creation. It begins in a smoky gray haze with a complex choralelike interplay of three couples (Jaiani and Fabrice Calmels, Valerie Robin and Matthew Adamczyk and Daly and Blanco, all in complete command of the work's tricky elegance and precision).

Then, in a duet of such otherworldly yet profoundly sensual beauty that the audience seemed to be holding its breath, the vanishingly feathery Jaiani (in flesh-pink leotard, her dark hair unpinned) was partnered to soaring effect by Calmels. Held aloft in a perfect horizontal plane, she was far more than a bird in mid-flight. Magnificent.

Sheer fun erupted in Robbins' ingenious "The Concert," a delicious romp capturing the nutty fantasies of an audience at a Chopin concert. Performed to perfection, it was a grand reminder of the Joffrey's unmatched flair for character work, with a mischievous Paul Lewis James at the piano.

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