It takes two to tango at Blossom as Joffrey and Cleveland Orchestra reunite

September 2, 2010
The Plain Dealer
Zachary Lewis


It's only natural, when you have a good experience, to want to repeat it. Hence the reappearance this weekend at Blossom Music Center of Chicago's Joffrey Ballet.

After last year's mutually rewarding collaboration with the Cleveland Orchestra, the two companies were only too eager get new dates on the calendar. Now here they are again, about to present two more evenings of dance with live music.


"To have an experience like that was really exceptional," said Ashley Wheater, Joffrey's artistic director. "This was two organizations truly working together. If we had a big enough stage to be on it together, we would."

Actually, it's a good thing the stage isn't that big. One of the glories of the event is hearing the orchestra in the pit, in an acoustically favorable space beneath the stage designed for just this sort of performance.

Until last year, the space had been sitting unused since 1984, when the orchestra halted its tradition of accompanying ballet at Blossom. In the meantime, the musicians lost out on the versatility and flexibility that come from working with dancers.

"To be able to do this affects everything else they do," said outgoing assistant conductor Tito Muñoz, who led last year's performances and will conduct again Saturday and Sunday. "It makes them a complete orchestra. After this, they can be totally fearless."

For the dancers, long used to following taped music, the experience of partnering with a full-time, world-class orchestra is as enriching as it is a lavish spectacle for the audience.

"When you have such an exceptional orchestra, to just immerse yourself in the music, it does transform you as an artist," Wheater said. "They learn how to listen and respond to what they're hearing."

Sharp ears will come in especially handy this weekend. Not only is the dance program demanding but the musical slate is large, diverse and complex.

The centerpiece is "Pretty Ballet," a substantial new piece by choreographer James Kudelka set to Martinu's Symphony No. 2, a score commissioned and premiered by the Cleveland Orchestra. Concluding the night will be another recent work, "Age of Innocence," a 2008 piece choreographed by Edwaard Liang and employing music by Philip Glass and Newman's score to the 2006 film "Little Children."

Principal cellist Mark Kosower will be featured in Joffrey co-founder Gerald Arpino's "Reflections," based on Tchaikovsky's "Variations on a Rococo Theme," while principal keyboard Joela Jones takes the musical lead in Balanchine's "Tarantella," set to Gottschalk's "Grande Tarantelle" for piano and orchestra.

"When you only have a few performances, you really want to show the depth of your company," Wheater said. "It's about putting something on the program for everyone."

In addition to an artistic education, both institutions gained insight last year on the practical aspects of presenting ballet at Blossom. This year, for instance, they bumped back the start time half an hour, to ward off sun glare. Similarly, lighting will focus on the center of the stage rather than the reflective sides.

But these are minor issues. Nothing so trivial obscures the fact that audiences in Northeast Ohio and the companies themselves are energized by the collaboration and its prospects.

"We're right here in the Midwest, and coming to Cleveland fits in with our mission," Wheater said. "We would love this relationship to continue."