The Joffrey Ballet’s “Winter Fire” Burns Brilliantly

As a blaze during a night chill, the Joffrey Ballet’s “Winter Fire” illuminates the Auditorium Theatre.

It revealed a company of dancers rich in the heritage of classical ballet, but pushing the boundaries of their bodies and the art form.

This powerful program delivers three ballets, including the U.S. premiere of “Infra” by Wayne McGregor, resident choreographer of London’s Royal Ballet, the Joffrey premiere of “In the Middle Somewhat Elevated” by former Joffrey dancer William Forsythe, and audience favorite “After the Rain” by Christopher Wheeldon, former resident choreographer of the New York City Ballet.

“In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated” is danced to recorded sound by Thom Willems—mechanical/industrial, sometimes sounding like shattered glass, but highly percussive. The only reason to call it music is its relentless beat, which provides the tension and propulsion of the athletic choreography. Nine dancers, three men and six women, leap, twirl and fly across the vast stage, alone—as in the extended solo by the stunning Amber Neumann—and in pairs.

The interchange of couples faintly suggests “Dances at a Gathering,” a romantic ballet created in 1969 by Jerome Robbins for the New York City Ballet, though the score is nowhere near Chopin and the movement is a fresh blend of classical and modern.

For “After the Rain,” the Joffrey Orchestra played the mystical bell-like music of Arvo Part under the baton of Scott Speck, with piano and violins interrupted occasionally by rumbling thunder. In the rosy, golden glow that follows the storm, the amazingly supple Victoria Jaiani and Fabrice Calmels seem to be almost space-walking, eventually intertwining.

Jaiani is all muscle and bone—she can extend her leg to behind her head—and Calmels towers over her. But he held her as she did cartwheels in the air, and at one moment, standing on his leg, she looked like the arched figurehead on the bow of a sailing ship.

At the conclusion, pianist Paul James Lewis and violinists Paul Zafer and Carol Lahti were singled out for applause.

“Infra” is the most enigmatic of the three pieces. It was created after the 2005 terrorist bombings in the London subway and premiered in 2008. High above the stage, white electronic figures walk back and forth, while on the stage below, three men twist, tangle, gyrate and leap.

When the women arrive on the stage, the pairings are graceful but very quick, as if everyone is in a hurry. The music by Max Richter is both enchanting and disturbing. At the conclusion one soloist, again the wonderful Amber Neumann, dances in the midst of people flooding the stage. By the end, she is on the floor, doubled over with the terrible pain of life and death.

It is a remarkable performance of a deeply affecting work.

This is the Joffrey at its best. Find time for it.

“Winter Fire” runs through February 26 at the Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress Pkwy., Chicago. For tickets and more information, call 312-739-0120 or visit joffrey.org.