An Interview with Joffrey Ballet Principle Victoria Jaiani

March 1, 2012
Alive Magazine
Jessica Ruhlin

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Most dance fans, myself included, probably became excited about the upcoming performance from the Joffrey Ballet back in May 2011 when they graced the Spring to Dance Show with an excerpt from a new full-length piece they will present at the Touhill Performing Arts Center this weekend.  If the principle dancers, Victoria Jaiani and Fabrice Calmels, of the pas de deux from the new work “Age of Innocence” by Edwaard Llang didn’t rile up enough anticipation, the inclusion of contemporary classics such as “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated” from iconic choreographer William Forsythe and “After the Rain” from Christopher Wheeldon on the program could send dance aficionados into a frenzy. The esteem of these classics and the reputation of the Joffrey Ballet make it clear that this show is sure to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

I was delighted with the chance to speak with the principle dancer who so caught my imagination with her performance at Spring to Dance, Joffrey Ballerina Victoria Jainai. In a conversation that covered YouTube, pointe shoe padding and dream roles, this warm and generous talent described what initially brought her into the world of dance and what keeps her turning out the stunning, versatile performances she is known so well for.

Jaiani recalls falling in love with dance at age five or six after seeing a production of “La Fille Mal Garde” in her hometown of the Republic of Georgia. She says it was “how light and happy” the dancers onstage appeared that made her want to try ballet herself. Noticed from a young age for potential, she arrived in New York at age 14 to study at the Joffrey School, not able to speak English and suddenly in a competitive, more crowded setting. Either love or adaptability won out, as she was hired into the company at a very young seventeen years old, debuting as the female lead in “Romeo and Juliet.” This is, for any dancer, a pretty incredible shot to stardom and to do so in a company as well-respected and loved as Joffrey made it even more enviable and impressive.

As for what she loves about being a Joffrey dancer, Jaiani described the love of the city, the history of talent that has passed through the ledger, the work environment with Artistic Director Ashley Wheater, and the relationship with her fellow dancer and husband, Temur Suluashvili. However, it was the Joffrey mission that she seemed to come back to; a dedication of presenting versatile, cutting-edge ballets, reconstructing classic work and finding new talent. The company is historically known for giving legends like Twyla Tharp her start, and as the home for Dance St. Louis Director Michael Uthoff, among other great talents. I asked Jaiani how, having spent nine years with Joffrey,  she has grown and what role the company has played in that progress.  She provided touching anecdotes about her artistic and personal development, saying that much of it came through the objective of presenting new works, often set specifically on her by some of the world’s best dance creators.

This direct experience with original choreographers plays a big part for Jaiani in how she approaches each piece she performs in, and in the diverse roles she plays. Their first-hand perspectives as they set movements helps Jaiani discover the characters as originally envisioned, without any watering down of the information. As for the experience of taking on iconic roles, she says that she likes to feel grounded within the piece, then watch videos of past renditions from other dancers.

When asked what characteristic she values most in herself, Jaiani took a long time in answering, finally saying, “my work ethic. I don’t take things for granted.” For someone so seemingly flawless, this statement leaves me wondering if she even realizes the beauty of her frame, the shape of her feet, her lovely face—but these great attributes don’t add up to the chameleon she is onstage. Even when describing the everyday aches and pains of life as a professional dancer, she seemed quite easygoing in regards to the physical sacrifice.

On the program, Jaiani and the other dancers rotate roles. So, one night you might see her in the dynamic “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated,” and the next she may be in Wheeldon’s sensual and spiritual “After the Rain” or the full version of “Age of Innocence,” inspired by the heroines of Jane Austen. She says she is excited for all of the various roles, but is particularly happy to present St. Louis with the full version of “Age of Innocence” after performing the excerpt at Spring to Dance. The only thing we can expect from her across the varied roles is a fully realized, beautifully executed performance.

We rounded up our interview talking favorite pointe shoes and what kind of protection to wrap your toes in. She prefers a special order Freed pointe shoe, a favored variety for ballerinas with high arches who are strong enough to wear a softer shoe. She says she likes the shoe to fit like a glove, therefore does not use any padding—which allows her to better feel the floor. Perhaps that is her secret to finding that transformative connection to the work of so many great choreographers. Whatever role she performs in the future, it is sure to fit like a glove, or – perhaps more aptly put for this artist – like a pointe shoe.

See the show at Touhill Performing Arts Center March 9-11. Showtimes are Friday and Saturday evening at 8pm, and a matinee Saturday at 2pm.“>Tickets on sale here.