BECKET — Once upon an oh-too-brief time in America, ballet was so popular that New York City boasted three major companies, each with its particular niche. The Joffrey Ballet was like the younger, sometimes wackier sibling whose dancers were technically strong but more eclectic: Unlikely to blend easily into a cookie-cutter corps de ballet, they were instead encouraged to stand out in the group’s equally diverse, and often ground- and barrier-breaking, repertoire. Eventually the boom went bust. The Joffrey, struggling to stay afloat, moved to Chicago.
Today, the wild child has matured: The triple bill presented through Sunday at Jacob’s Pillow feels like a grown-up night at the ballet; though the program is flecked with wit and imbued with youthful spirit, the dancers are given serious choreography. They perform a delicious flood of recognizable, largely unadulterated ballet steps with sincere, rather than satiric, vigor. (The company boasts so many terrific dancers that it seems unfair not to mention them all, especially given the Joffrey’s non-ranking system; but suffice to say, wow.) Now that it’s de rigueur for small to medium ballet companies to present a multimedia, crossover repertoire, perhaps the Joffrey’s next legacy is to bring us full circle, back to classical ballet, albeit 21st-century style.
Indeed, the three choreographers — Edwaard Liang, Yuri Possokhov, and Stanton Welch — put their women on pointe, but over bare legs, natch; maneuver large ensembles deftly, but with wicked canons and counterpoint; and offer ample doses of intimate pas de deux, but fueled with the slippery acrobatics of contemporary partnering. Much of this looks fresh; the few disappointing moments occur when the movement devolves into cliches du jour. (Was there a memo demanding a certain amount of running and sliding, of rolling over the tops of feet and onto the knees?)
Happily, Liang’s 2008 “Age of Innocence” — a modern-day son to Antony Tudor’s “Lilac Garden” — shows that contemporary abstract storytelling in ballet is also possible. Both ballets depict repressed desire in achingly beautiful movement; whereas the passion of Tudor’s characters is cruelly, paradoxically constrained in a bucolic outdoor setting, Liang puts his dancers in the more formal milieu of a ballroom. Liang’s patterns, though tidy, blossom swiftly and unpredictably, so that while he conjures the formality of social line dances, the men and women flit and flirt with a free grace. Like Tudor, Liang provides private and lovely pas de deux that, as if carried on the wind, may exist only in stolen moments.
The Joffrey Ballet
The world premiere on the program, Welch’s “Son of Chamber Symphony,” set to John Adams’s composition of the same name, also nods to ballets past: “Coppélia,” “Swan Lake,” and “Giselle,” as well as “Four Temperaments” and “Rubies.” This feels playfully deliberate rather than derivative, in the way that the women’s disk-thin tutus (designed by Travis Halsey), which jut out crisply like fresh Communion wafers, honor sartorial history while striding fashionably forward. Though the threads of the dance’s three movements are almost imperceptible, they are veiled in such satisfying mystery that one wavers between looking for the ties and just letting them unwind.
Possokhov’s 2011 “Bells,” also unpredictable, also wonderful, is a roller coaster of a dance full of lively classical passages flavored with dashes of czardas-style port de bras, and mazurka-like chugs. Three memorable duets exploring a range of romantic entanglements, and a lightly tragicomic women’s trio, anchor the ballet, so that it’s both grounded and romantic, ringing true while floating in whimsy. If the Pillow season must come to an end, what a dreamy send-off we’ve been given.