Dance on! The Joffrey Ballet at Zellerbach

Since there has only been one case of COV19 in Berkeley, the city has assumed a less draconian stance toward public events. Cal Performances is currently running all its programs to plan, and this weekend marked the continuance of its collaboration with the Joffrey Ballet.

Four contemporary ballets with choreography by Christopher Wheeldon, Stephanie Martinez, Justin Peck and the company’s own Nicolas Blanc comprised the Joffrey’s program, which ran Friday through Sunday.

Blanc’s Beyond the Shore was enthusiastically received by the audience, some of whom may have been present during the 2017 open rehearsals that allowed interested members of the Berkeley community to watch the development of the choreography. Cal Performances, the co-commissioner, also presented a conversation with the choreographer on Thursday afternoon about the development of the piece.

The Joffrey Ballet in Nicolas Blanc’s “Beyond the Shore”. Photo by Cheryl Mann.

Blanc’s attentive rendering to the mostly electronic and sampled music by Mason Bates opened with a dreamy ensemble of four couples, punctuated by staccato movements. Throughout the ballet Blanc’s vision of the human body, especially the ability of dancers’ legs to take on a near symbolic quality by emphasizing their straight and angular positions, seemed otherworldly. The legs of a ballerina held upside down by her partner looked like the hands of a clock as it moves through time. And the relationship of dancer to dancer seemed wound into a notion of gravity and deep space. Blanc’s choreography was closely intertwined with the music.

His concern with the pull of space on the body was most apparent in the section titled “Gemini in the Solar Wind,” a pas de deux between Victoria Jaiani and Dylan Gutierrez, in which the ballerina seemed unloosed from the normal constraints of gravity. While recorded voices from the 1965 Gemini spacewalk crackled through the sound system, Jaiani floated above the stage, the arms of her partner both suspending her and acting like a lifeline to the planet. Held high, she slowly twisted and rolled over like a body in easy cosmic flight.

Behind the dancers was an abstract design of rectangles overlapping, reminiscent of a computer motherboard or layered panels. The set and lighting design by Mark Stanley changed color in each of the six movements, creating an atmospheric world hovering above the dancers, drifting from moody tones to deep turquoise to a vivid blue. The overall affect was one of mystery. Blanc commented in the program notes, “The approach of Beyond the Shore is to treat exploration as a metaphor for human nature.”

Works set to Stravinsky opened the program. Christopher Wheeldon’s setting of Pulcinella, Stravinsky’s neoclassical suite based on music attributed at the time to Pergolesi, glides through the ballet’s nine movements, the choreography firmly rooted in classical ballet but with Wheeldon’s innovative and whimsical detailing.

Alonso Tepetzi, Dara Holmes and Jose Pablo Castro-Cuevas in Christopher Wheeldon’s “Pulcinella”. Photo by Cheryl Mann.

The light playfulness of the subject was reflected in the dancers as they moved from a circle costumed as commedia dell’arte characters to abstractions of Harlequin, rather than the quixotic and less savory Pulcinella. Dressed in white unitards with black diamonds figured here and there, the dancers moved through a series of mostly musical dances, including a serenade, a tarantella, a gavotte and a minuet.

A vivid recreation of commedia characters painted on the backdrop kept the ballet firmly locked in its historical precedent.

Another Stravinsky work, “Dumbarton Oaks,” was selected to accompany Stephanie Martinez’ Bliss!  The neoclassical chamber concerto influenced by Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos was originally commissioned as a gift for the philanthropist Mildred and Robert Bliss on their 30th wedding anniversary. And the ballet comments slyly on the power of gender and sexual allure.

Bare-chested men in gray pants sail through synchronous jumps, vibrant and powerful, they revel in their strength, and then … she appears — the petite blonde in a short turquoise chiffon skirt, all legs and glitter. Brooke Linford takes on two of the men,

Evan Boersma and Derek Drilon, in an intricate pas de trois. Later she is joined by Anais Bueno in apricot chiffon and rhinestones. The two ballerinas are like a magnet to the male dancers.

The program closed with Justin Peck’s sneaker ballet, The Times Are Racing, set to the driving music of Dan Deacon.

– Jaime Robles