Unquestionably the highlight of last night's Joffrey Ballet program, as well as one of the peak offerings of the company's current mini-season at Wolf Trap, was the performance of Sir Frederick Ashton's "Illuminations," created in 1950 for the New York City Ballet and acquired by the Joffrey troupe last year. This chilling, mysterious and spellbinding opus is one of a kind, and the Joffrey staging (as mounted by John Taras) captures both its bizarre fascination and quintessentially surreal flux of moods.
The disturbed and disturbing poet Arthur Rimbaud was both the inspiration and a source for the ballet. Ashton was immersed in the man and his work, and the ballet bagan to take shape in his imagination as soon as he heard Benjamin Britten's setting of the poet's "Les Illuminations" for voice (the vocal part was artfully managed by tenor Grayson Hirst last night) and string orchestra. The bewitching score is one of Britten's finest. Also coupled with it was Cecil Beaton's phantasmagorical set and costumes, and the resulting totality presents a series of "danced pictures" full of arcane allusion, depicting what the poet called the "savage sideshow" of his fantasy life.
The curtain opens on a frozen tableau of pierrot figures, awakened to life (like Dr. Coppelius' dolls) by the Poet's touch. At the crux of the fugitive action is a contest between Sacred and Profane Love, the Poet veering from serene encounters with the first to lewd and violent exchanges with the second. In the end, the Poet follows Sacred Love into eternity, in an apotheosis that recalls Balanchine's "Orpheus." The effect of all this is almost unaccountably gripping -- Ashton seems to have found a pipeline direct to our deepest subconscious levels. Gregory Huffman was splendid as the tortuously obsessed Poet; Patricia Miller and Denise Jackson, as Sacred and Profane Love, might have proven more persuasive with roles reversed, but the cast as a whole was admirable.