Joffrey Ballet Unique Voices

It's not often a ballet performance can make a viewer laugh and cry in the same sitting, but the Joffrey Ballet's "Unique Voices" manages to do just that.

"Unique Voices" showcases three choreographers' work - the Chicago premiere Stanton Welch's "Maninyas," the Chicago premiere of James Kudelka's "The Man in Black" and the U.S. premiere of Alexander Ekman's "Tulle."

"Maninyas," set to Ross Edwards' "Maninyas Concerto for Violin and Orchestra," explores falling in love, examining how in relationships lovers gradually reveal layers of themselves.

Much like falling in love, the piece is a mix of being wonderfully frantic yet subdued and beautiful. There's a moment in the middle of the work where there's a single overhead spotlight on a pair of dancers while the other female dancers slowly creep across the stage, low to the floor. Their flowing colored skirts look like watercolors being brushed along the stage.

Joffrey Ballet Unique Voices

The choreography was a refreshing mix of contemporary choreography and classical ballet, utilizing the classic lines of ballet with broken down, looser movements.

"The Man In Black" is not what you expect at all when attending a ballet performance. As the curtain rises the bars of The Beatles' "In My Life" begins gently, but then the octave-lower voice of Johnny Cash shakes the stage.

The four dancers - three men and one woman clad in cowboy boots and classic Country Western wear - perform to six Johnny Cash covers, all from late in his career. The dance is about the furthest thing from ballet, starting out like the best line dance in a Country Western bar you've ever seen.

Joffrey Ballet Unique Voices

It's fun and it's a little hokey, but in a good way. But when it's on, it's on. The penultimate song, Cash's heartbreaking cover of Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt" is one of the most emotionally-driven pieces of art I've seen in a very long time. The song tells the story of addiction, and Kudelka's choreography expresses that pain so simply, so beautifully, it will stick with you long after the performance is done.

The third and final performance, Alexander Ekman's "Tulle" is the perfect 21st century iteration of ballet. It's part comedy, part history lesson, part ballet goes to the Blue Man Group.

Ballet, being a classical fine art form, is typically rigid, buttoned-up and stiff, but "Tulle" is self-referential in the best ways. The piece opens in a class-like setting with the choreography taking jabs at the way ballerinas breathe while performing, the counting and the unpleasant noises pointe shoes can make on the stage floor, mirroring the squeaks and pounds in the music. The best bit, though is when the corps of women starts whistling the theme from "Swan Lake," a perfect ballet inside joke after the company performed Christopher Wheeldon's choreography last October.

Joffrey Ballet Unique Voices

The work takes traditional ballet choreography and pairs it with the electronically processed classical music by New York-based composer Mikael Karlsson. The dancers don all white, women in tutus, but LED screens playing videos engulf the stage, putting another modern twist on the classic.

The Joffrey Ballet's "Unique Voices" is at the Auditorium Theatre through Feb. 22. It's a must-see for anyone in Chicago.

Photos by Cheryl Mann