Joffrey Ballet pirouettes into San Diego

January 26, 2013
U-T San Diego
Pat Sherman

Content

Well into its fifth decade, Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet is staying the course to remain relevant to today’s audiences, offering a provocative mix of modern and classical dance.

The company that produced Russia’s first rock ballet, pirouetted to the music of Prince and has produced shows by renowned choreographers Paul Taylor, Twyla Tharp and George Balanchine returns to kick off La Jolla Music Society’s 2013 Dance Series at Copley Symphony Hall this Tuesday.

This year’s program includes choreography by Stanton Welch, Christopher Wheeldon and William Forsythe.

La Jolla Music Society’s president and artistic director, Christopher Beach, said the production is a command performance, following the company’s show last year at San Diego Civic Theatre.

“We sold over 2,000 tickets the last time they were here,” Beach said. “That’s not the died-in-the-wool, tried-and-true ballet-obsessed audience. There’s a lot more people that came to that concert.”

The program begins with Welch’s “Son of Chamber Symphony,” which premiered last summer at Jacob’s Pillow in Massachusetts, followed by “Wheeldon’s After the Rain,” danced to the first movement of Estonian composer Arvo Pärt’s “Tabula Rasa.” It culminates with Forsythe’s “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated,” which was commissioned by Rudolf Nureyev in 1987 for the Paris Opera Ballet.

Before joining the Joffrey as artistic director in 2007, Ashley C. Wheater (a former Joffrey dancer himself) served as assistant artistic director and ballet master for the San Francisco Ballet.

“When they were last here, the quality of the dancers was second to none,” Beach said. “Ashley has a platinum pedigree in the arts. … He’s been to the mountain top and he knows the greatest work there is, and he’s insisting that the company be part of that.”

On Joffrey’s current tour, which features 35 dancers and also includes stops in Dallas, Las Vegas and Berkeley, Wheater said that the San Diego performance would be particularly “edgy.”

“’Son of Chamber’ is a new work for us. It’s definitely a really wonderful way to open a program … but I think that people find ‘In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated’ far more challenging,” Wheater said of Forsythe’s piece, which involves nearly 50 themes and variations. “It’s quite aggressive … and I think that people are as compelled by it today as they were 25 years ago. … What Forsythe is trying to say is, look at the art form, look at classical ballet in a different light and forget that 19th Century idea of tutus and toe shoes. Look at these people as beautiful, athletic artists.”

Joffrey Ballet was founded in 1956 as a six-person ensemble, touring the country with original works, at a time when most companies produced the versions of staid and safe classics. It has been referred to as “America’s Company of Firsts,” being the first dance company to perform at the White House, the first to appear on American television and the first to incorporate multimedia.

“To a lot of people, when you say, ‘Let’s go to the ballet,’ they think of it as very much 19th Century, and I think that Robert Joffrey really tried to change that perception,” Wheater said. “We live in a world where there is so much happening, so quickly, and a lot of it is pretty cold. For me, at the center of what we do should be a heart. We should reach out and be able to touch our audience.

As part of its mission to inspire and educate the next generation of dancers, Wheater will lead a master class early Tuesday for 50 young students from San Diego Civic Youth Ballet, San Diego School of Creative and Performing Arts and Coronado School of the Arts.

Next year Joffrey will produce Polish choreographer Krzysztof Pastor’s cutting-edge retelling of Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet,” inspired by the story of two lovers in Sarajevo from disparate backgrounds who were shot to death on a bridge as they met. It’s a production Wheater said he hopes to bring to San Diego.

“The story of Romeo and Juliet resonated with Pastor so strongly … in that it just keeps returning at a different time, in different generations, but … there’s always someone, whether its parents, families, governments or religion, that gets in the way of two people being able to live their life the way they choose. It’s a very compelling piece of dance and a very compelling piece of theater.”