Joffrey Ballet’s Age of Innocence, one of the works they brought to Cal Performances. Photo: Herbert Migdoll

The return of the Joffrey Ballet to Berkeley was a joyful reunion as anticipation turned to renewed admiration for fans of the brilliant, 57-year-old, American dance company.

Until their January Cal Performances doubleheader at Zellerbach, Joffrey appearances on Bay Area stages had been far too rare; especially after the company’s 1995 move from New York City to Chicago and Artistic Director Ashley Wheater’s arrival in 2007.

Long a purveyor of supreme choreography and phenomenal dancers, vintage and avant-garde ballets have been — and, good news, still are — their mainstay. A change of leadership and hometown has left intact a dazzling 21st-century repertoire; immensely personal, singular dancers; and immaculately restaged classics. 

The Green Table, Kurt Jooss’s expressionist response to war, tipped the dance world on its edge when it opened in Paris in 1932. Remarkably and tragically, the ballet’s antiwar sentiments pierce the heart as convincingly today as they have since its premiere.

Beginning with “The Gentlemen in Black,” lining either side of a slanting green table and wearing grotesque masks that attract and repel with equal force, the Joffrey dancers captured Jooss’s essentials-only style. Far from dehumanizing the work, the ballet gained power as each lunging arabesque and every single pirouette conveyed not only skill, but substance.

From the simple — soldiers ducking in subservience under the outstretch arm of Death as they exit — to the sublime — Sunday afternoon, Alexis Polito as The Woman — the dancers were invested, demonstrating a deep understanding of the ballet’s heritage.

When Joanna Wozniak as The Old Mother scurried in relentless, futile circles, her hands cupped as if around the face of a lost love, universal grief rang backwards throughout history.

At the same time, Fabrice Calmels as Death shot nightmarishly forward — and not just because Hein Heckroth’s stunning, skeleton/centurion costume design and green lighting faithfully re-created by Jan Hofstra achieved a modern-day ghoulish effect. What makes The Green Table unforgettable are nuanced dancers like Calmels, Wozniak and Polito, who deftly command or relinquish the limelight.

The ballet, having taken the audience through the fear and fury of war, ended as it began: at the table. But we’re not the same, nor were the repeated movements, now placed in context. The Joffrey dancers held a treasure in their bodies and dispensing it with artistry and bold energy, repeated their convincing declaration of antiwar.

But even before the iconic ballet impressed, the company strutted their considerable stuff in Age of Innocence, a Jane Austen-inspired work by Edwaard Liang, and Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain.

Liang proved most adept at crisp beginnings and surprisingly satisfying endings for his five-movement work set to the music of Philip Glass and Thomas Newman. Sandwiched between the cleverness, a tendency to become mired in the remarkable architecture of the dancers and the spatial configurations drained the work of its fullest potential. Occasional raggedness in the ensemble’s multiple duets, where differences in musicality or the range of an arm movement or the torso’s sweep varied significantly, were regrettable.

But a quartet for men and a pas de deux performed by April Daly and Dylan Gutierrez transcended minor complaints with terrific technique and symbiotic pairings. Alternating double saut de basques (to the left!) were tossed off with easy glee in the men’s section and Daly’s molten movements — magic enough in their own right — became mesmerizing in the beyond-capable hands of her partner.

Victoria Jaiani and Fabrice Calmels in After the Rain. Photo: Herbert Migdoll

Wheeldon saved his magic for the second half of the ballet he created to Arvo Pärt’s minimalist music.

After a slate-grey exploration of angularity, abrupt partnering and turned-in legs held impossibly high a la seconde (to the side), a black scrim lifted, revealing Christine Rocas, dressed minimally in pink beside a bare-chested Temur Suluashvili.

Ballet is not a fashion show, but costuming can be harmonious or jarring and Holly Hynes’ sparsity was definitely the former. Exposing a flexed foot rubbing up a bare leg, and revealing a gentle, floating cabriole lift where two legs kissed, more than beat against each other, sound, image, steps and two brilliant dancers were a show-stopper.

Director Wheater deserves a tremendous nod for his achievements. Offering wise casting, wickedly talented dancers, world-class choreographers and a time-travel journey both forward and backward to balletic gems means the Joffrey’s next visit can not come too soon.

Cal Performances has two appearances by Hubbard Street Dance Chicago this Friday and Saturday. Tickets are available from the Cal Performances website

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