It has been far too many years since Washington audiences saw Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet do anything besides “The Nutcracker.” That was beautifully, and almost painfully, apparent Friday night when the company performed at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts. “American Legends” was the ponderous — and inaccurate — program title for what turned out to be a fantastic parade of international pas de deux.
Sex, innocence, imperiousness and pure joy. You name the state that a man and a woman can convey onstage, and the company put it out there, starting with a soda-shop-sweet duet from Jerome Robbins’s 1945 ballet “Interplay.” As Mahallia Ward and Graham Maverick playfully partnered like stars of the middle-school dance, other couples canoodled in the darker corners of the stage until the closing moments found all three pairs seated and holding hands. (The ensemble work in other movements was a bit sloppy.)
“After the Rain” is the name of English choreographer Christopher Wheeldon’s adagio for two that became an instant classic when it debuted in 2005. It’s designed for an uncommonly strong male dancer (originally Jock Soto) to perform with a particularly sinewy ballerina (originally Wendy Whelan), and Fabrice Calmels, the Joffrey’s 6-foot-6-inch Adonis of a dancer, is a stunning guy to see do it live. Friday, his emotional connection with April Daly felt slightly forced — we need to believe this couple takes every breath together — but they hit every long, slow extension, including the straight-armed lift that results in Calmels suspending Daly’s body sideways 10 feet in the air.
Athletic male dancers always have fun in works by Stanton Welch, the Australian choreographer who helms the Houston Ballet. His “Son of Chamber Symphony” (2012) is set to quirky, propulsive music by John Adams and opens with four men leaping and rotating their legs like ticking clocks. The surprise in this piece was the central, unexpectedly classical pas de deux for Jeraldine Mendoza and Miguel Blanco. Blanco did a gallant job of showing Mendoza off, but Mendoza stubbornly stuck her balances as if to say she could stand on one toe all day whether he was there with his hand at her waist or not.
The program closed with Twyla Tharp’s oft-performed “Nine Sinatra Songs,” a 1982 ballroom drama for seven couples whiling the night away. What set the Joffrey’s performance apart was the dancers’ commitment to staying in character, such that even the drunk cad and the shy klutz managed to show their partners off. There are no ranks at the Joffrey — no principals like at New York City Ballet or “Stars” like the Paris Opera. Watching the Chicagoans perform Friday, you could see why: The stage was a great equalizer, where every couple there deserved a moment to glitter under the disco ball.