The Joffrey Ballet serves you 'rite'

March 21, 2013
Portland Press Herald
Bob Keyes

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Jeraldine Mendoza's career aspirations are pretty straightforward.

She would like to dance "as long as my body allows it. I wish I could dance until I die."

Mendoza, 21, dances with the legendary Joffrey Ballet and will be with the company for its performance presented by Portland Ovations on Thursday night at Merrill Auditorium. The centerpiece of the program is the Joffrey's reconstructed "The Rite of Spring."

Mendoza has danced since she was 5, and has known she wanted to make a career on stage since age 13, when she got her first major role in "The Nutcracker."

"That's when I decided this is what I wanted to do and make a career out of it. Through all the rehearsals and all the coaching and the stage experience, I finally realized that this is what I really want to do and what I love to do," she said.

Mendoza has danced with the Chicago-based Joffrey since 2011. Within her first year with the company, she had lead roles in several of the company's ballets.

Thursday's performance is part of the company's winter tour, which began in Los Angeles in February and concludes this week in North Carolina. Joffrey is one of the most recognizable arts organizations in America as well as one of the top dance companies in the world. Even people who do not know much about ballet recognize the Joffrey name.

According to its website, Joffrey was the first dance company to perform at the White House, at the invitation of Jacqueline Kennedy. It was the first on TV, the first and only to appear on the cover of Time magazine, and the first American company to visit Russia. It was also the first dance company to have had a movie based on it: Robert Altman's 2003 film "The Company."

Growing up in San Francisco, Mendoza became familiar with Joffrey because its artistic director, Ashley Wheater, was part of the San Francisco dance scene. Wheater joined the San Francisco Ballet in 1989, and later became its ballet master and assistant artistic director. He joined Joffrey as artistic director in 2007.

Mendoza grew up watching the San Francisco Ballet, and admired Wheater's work.

"When I found out he was director of Joffrey, I knew he was bringing the company in a whole new direction and a whole new light," she said.

Since she fully committed to ballet eight years ago, Mendoza had set her sights on joining a top-flight company. After training with the City Ballet School of San Francisco, she won a scholarship to the School of American Ballet's summer session at age 17.

She then trained at San Francisco Ballet and was the first American woman invited to graduate in the Russian course at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy in Moscow.

Her experience with the Joffrey has been everything she hoped it would be.

"It's been very special for me to dance here, because I know that a lot of leaders in the dance world have been through Joffrey," she said. "It's a great place for me to start my career."

Thursday's program includes three pieces. Mendoza will dance in two of them, "The Rite of Spring" and "Son of Chamber Symphony."

But the focus is on "The Rite of Spring." This is the 100th anniversary of the piece, which Igor Stravinsky wrote as an orchestral score for dance. Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes premiered the work in May 1913, with choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky.

Joffrey reconstructed the ballet in 1987 based on research of the original. The version it will perform at Merrill is based on the 1987 reincarnation.

The original ballet was controversial and unpopular.

"I've been told that it was really not well received when it was performed the very first time," Mendoza said. "It was very imposing to the classical dance form. The dancers were turned in and hunched over. People were expecting to see this beautiful ballet, but when they saw it at the end of a triple bill, they were booing the dancers and throwing things on stage."

So far, Mendoza and the other dancers have not encountered any thrown objects.

"Oh, no," she said, laughing. "It has been very well received. We live in more complex times, and I think we understand it more."

But the tour is not over, and Portland audiences are known to get rowdy. Might there be an uprising at Merrill?