What’s your excuse?: a response by Joanna Furnans

The Times are Racing an evening of performances by the Joffrey Ballet

February 12-23, 2020 Auditorium Theatre, Chicago

On the program: Commedia (2008) by Christopher Wheeldon, Mono Lisa (2003) by Itzik Galili, Bliss! (2019) by Stephanie Martinez, The Sofa (1995) by Itzik Galili, and The Times Are Racing (2017) by Justin Peck

Featuring dance artists: Yuka Iwai, Gayeon Jung, Yumi Kanazawa, Brooke Linford, Yoshihisa Arai, Edson Barbosa, Evan Boersma, Stefan Goncalvez, Victoria Jaiani, Fernando Duarte, Greig Matthews, Xavier Núñez, Anais Bueno, Temur Suluashvili, Anna Gerberich, Jeraldine Mendoza, Dylan Gutierrez, Nicole Ciapponi, Christine Rocas, Lucia Connonlly, Cara Marie Gary, Julia Rust, Olivia Tang-Mifsud, Joanna Wozniak, Hansol Jeong, Graham Maverick, Aaron Renteria, Alberto Velazquez

Design team for The Sofa: Janco Van Barneveld (Scenic), Natasja Lansen (Costume), Itzik Galili (Lighting)

images by: Cheryl Mann 

* response edited by Ellen Chenoweth

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Trump is going to be re-elected.

This is the thought I had after seeing the Joffrey Ballet’s recent program The Times Are Racing. (And this was before Super Tuesday).

I’d been thinking that anyway. My wife and I talk about it, my friends and I text about it. It’s a reality we’re bracing for. Actually, not even bracing: why hold on tighter to a sunken vessel?

Despite this awareness, I am naïve. I show up to the theater knowing that not everyone in the audience will be artists or activists, but assuming that almost everyone will (at least) be sympathetic to the lives of the artists on stage and aware of the socio-political commentary in the work that the choreographers have made. I expect the audience will be sharp enough to catch the nuanced (or overt) meaning(s) in those works. This program, The Times Are Racing, includes a “sneaker ballet” by New York City Ballet’s Justin Peck so it should be an uplifting and poignant contemporary ballet for these fucked up times. (As if all the other “times” were less so.) The audience is here for it.

But judging from the audience reactions around me, it seemed like something turned their brains off. Did people become totally hypnotized by the long, splayed legs of a leotard-clad woman (Itzik Galili’s Mono Lisa)? Were they so mesmerized by the sculpted, shirtless men that they were no longer capable of understanding or questioning the messages presented to them in choreographed imagery (Stephanie Martinez’s Bliss!)? Maybe so.

But what is Ashley Wheater’s excuse? I can’t imagine the beloved artistic director of the Joffrey is so swayed by pretty lines and virtuosic tropes that he entirely misses — or is willing to overlook—the misogyny, homophobia, and racism present in this program. The most offensive and baffling of these works was Itzik Galili’s 1995 piece The Sofa. In the program notes Wheater says that it “takes a light look at romance in the modern world.”

The “light look” looks like this:

A huge over-stuffed yellow sofa in the middle of the stage.

A petite white woman (Anna Gerberich) wearing pigtails and teeny-tiny green shorts with a matching crop top. She looks and acts like an energetic, rebellious 16-year-old.

A taller white man (Temur Suluashvili) wearing slacks, suspenders and a partially untucked white collared business shirt. He looks and acts like a disgruntled 30-something home from happy hour.

Apparently these two people are lovers.

They are having a domestic dispute where one is always trying to get away from the other. The sofa is used as a trampoline, a bed, and a shield. There are frequent near misses where one tries to jump and land on top of the other only to have them scoot away at the last second.

                                       audience chuckles

In one sequence, he sits broad on the sofa (like manspreading on a train) while she desperately tries to scramble away from him. Without even looking at her he swings his arm over, grabs her by the butt of her shorts and yanks her back on top of him. They repeat this choreography 3 times. In a reverse of power (?), she sits with her legs wide, grabs him by the back of the neck, and dives his head into her crotch. She holds him there, squirming, like he’s drowning under water.

                                          audience gasps, giggles

The soundtrack is Tom Waits’ Nobody. “Nobody, is gonna love you / The way that I love you / Cause nobody is that strong.”

Joffrey Artists Anna Gerberich and Temur Suluashvili in The Sofa_Photo by Cheryl Mann

Their antics make the couch flip over and there is a pause.

Right on the downbeat of the next verse, the couch flips back and this time the white man is joined not by his young female lover, but a Latino gay man (Fernando Duarte). We know we are supposed to read him as gay because he is wearing red velvet pants and a scarf.

                                        laughter

They proceed to do the same choreography as earlier, but this time the straight white guy is in the “girl’s” role. The Latino guy pulls the white business man by his pants as he’s trying to get away. The straight guy forces the gay guy to give him head, like he’s drowning under water.

                                         gasps, discomfort

They carry this “light look at romance in the modern world” all the way to the end. When the three performers give their bow, they do a shtick where the business guy doesn’t want to hold the other guy’s hand. The gay Latino has to hang back. Eventually the white man gives in and they all hold hands and bow with big smiles.

                                        playful laughter

Maybe the audience gasped and laughed not because they were clutching their pearls at the scandal of what they were seeing, but because they knew better. Perhaps they were thinking, “What the fuck, this is so offensive! This is so outdated!” (25 years in fact since the piece was made, and it shouldn’t have been cool back then either.) But if that was the case, has anyone complained to the Joffrey? To Wheater? About Wheater? Why did no one outright boo? Why didn’t I?

I’ll tell you why. Because I’m still scared to voice a dissenting opinion. Because it’s aggressive to boo in a large auditorium. Because the culturally accepted code-of-conduct in the theater world— and in my middle class, white, New England upbringing— is to show your dissatisfaction by simply clapping less and trash talking later. Because I knew I would write about it. And I know that a complaint to the Joffrey would most likely do nothing.

So, this is that same powerless, angry-but-resigned feeling that I have that makes me know that Trump will be re-elected. I’m not doing enough. The audience isn’t doing enough. And the people making statements with their platform— Ashley Wheater and the Joffrey Ballet—think offensive behavior is “light” and funny. They are way behind the times and apparently that is a-ok with most of us.

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Joanna Furnans is a Chicago-based dance artist and writer. She is co-founder and managing editor of the Performance Response Journal. www.joannafurnans.com 

Ellen Chenoweth is the Director of the Dance Presenting Series at the Dance Center of Columbia College Chicago. She is also a writer and editor with thINKingDANCE