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The Ghostly Strength of ‘Studies in Blue’

How the Joffery Ballet’s latest production uses dance to communicate the pain of addiction

By Arts & Culture, Entertainment

The Joffrey Ballet’s “Studies in Blue” (2024)

I am not a connoisseur of ballet. Previous to “Studies in Blue,” the Joffrey Ballet’s most recent offering to the public, my experience consisted of seeing a subpar showing of “The Nutcracker” when I was 15 and then Joffery’s “Frankenstein” a few months ago. 

“Studies in Blue” is a modern ballet that explores the complexities of human emotions, relationships, and the dimensions of the color blue. It is composed of three acts. Each is an entirely unique show encapsulating different ideas, concepts, and emotions. 

However, when the first act “Yonder Blue” ended, I felt disappointed. Maybe disappointed is the wrong word; I felt lackluster. Apathetic. Meh.

If the show had ended there and my student rush ticket was $10 instead of $20, I would have been happy, but not wildly moved. The ballet was lovely. The dancers were together, the lifts were pretty, the music was dramatic, and the costumes were fine. It met expectations. 

But the show didn’t end there. 

The truly enthralling part was the second act. Wedged between the stories of Acts I and III, it’s called “Hungry Ghosts.” It spoke of drug addiction, an epidemic, and the trials of human connection through this struggle. Choreographed by Stina Quagebeur, an associate choreographer with the English National Ballet, the dance follows a couple as one of them is slowly consumed by a drug addiction. 

Completely without words, “Hungry Ghosts” depicted the soul-destroying way loved ones can be taken by something intangible. “Hungry Ghosts” took everything that “Yonder Blue” had and stepped it up. It evoked emotion that the other two acts are incapable of capturing. 

Like the first act, the third act, “Hummingbird,” was similarly mid. The most noteworthy moment was when the audience gasped as dancers slid onto the stage from an upstage slope. The top of the slope was hidden from view with a curtain. While dramatic and fitting the previous movement onstage, it felt like a party trick meant to offset the lack of focus and specific story.

All three acts had a focus on pairs. They were built around duets between two dancers creating a dialogue of movement held between the couples. The show used these duets as a focal point for the meaning in the dance.

Throughout the show, group dancing complemented duets. There were suddenly moments when the stage was filled with dancers moving in perfect unison. One became captivated by the synchronization and the power behind the grouped dancers.

What “Hungry Ghosts” had that the other two acts didn’t was a story of struggle. Anais Bueno and Hyuma Kiyosawa, the dancers of the “Hungry Ghosts” duet, struggled to stay together as a couple. Bueno was continually sucked into the dark group of dancers that symbolized addiction while Kiyosawa tried, again and again, to bring her back. 

The emotion created by the movement in this struggle was what made this act compelling. The duet between Kiyosawa and Bueno showed what Bueno was struggling for and why she was struggling in the first place. The power of the group shows us why this is difficult, and ultimately why she fails.

In the other two acts, the duet dancers just dance. The lifts and twirling were lovely but lacked the depth that Kiyosawa and Bueno captured.

There was emotion as Bueno danced with Kiyosawa as they twirled across the stage, delighting in each other’s presence and their connection. There was emotion as Kiyosawa brought Bueno back every time she was taken by addiction. 

There’s emotion when the group of dancers descend on Bueno from backstage, surrounding her. Emotion as she climbs their limbs like a staircase to stand on someone’s shoulders. Emotion as she falls to the ground, mirrored by two other dancers falling into smaller groups flanking the big one. Emotion as she catches, and compounding emotion when the action is then repeated. There’s emotion as the group fades into the background, slowly swaying in silhouette, Bueno swaying with them as Kiyosawa desperately tries to bring her back.

Nowhere in the entire show was there more emotion than when Kiyosawa embraced Bueno. Bueno, a slow swaying form, mirroring the countless silhouettes of the group separated from the rest of the stage by sheer curtain, goes rigid and unresponsive against Kiyosawa. Kiyosawa embraced her, then turned to leave. 

Bueno grabs his hand as he turns. She’s stiff, but no longer swaying. As Kiyosawa watched, she stepped back. Again. Kiyosawa raised his hand to keep hold of hers, but she let go. She began to sway again, always moving backward, toward the curtains, toward the group, away from Kiyosawa. 

As he watched, she faded into the curtain, becoming one of the uncountable silhouettes. Leaving Kiyosawa forever.

All three acts are meant to play on emotions. The show “Studies in Blue” is about evoking a visceral response to motion and connection between people and bodies. Yet against “Hungry Ghosts,” “Yonder Blue” and “Hummingbird” fail.

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