"All Stars." That's what the Joffrey Ballet has named its upcoming program of four major works at the Auditorium Theatre.
Ask Ashley Wheater, the Joffrey's artistic director, whether the
umbrella title refers to the choreographers being showcased, or to the
Joffrey dancers, and he steps deftly around the question.
"First, it's the choreographers -- George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins
and Christopher Wheeldon -- who represent the artists of three
successive generations who created work for the New York City Ballet,"
said Wheater. "But their ballets, all of which are very difficult to
perform, also will serve as a great showcase for the Joffrey's
up-and-coming stars. All four pieces on this program make big demands on
the dancers and give them great opportunities to grow."
The triumverate of choreographers have interestingly linked careers.
Balanchine (1904-83), was the Russian-bred master of Georgian
heritage who founded New York City Ballet and put an American spin on
Old World classicism. Robbins (1918-98) was the American-bred
choreographer who brilliantly bridged the worlds of ballet (primarily
with Balanchine's company) and Broadway. And 37-year-old Wheeldon, the
prolific English-born dancemaker, is a product of Britain's Royal Ballet
who, in 2001 was named New York City Ballet's first resident
"Balanchine and Robbins were immensely helpful to Robert Joffrey in
the early days of the company," said Wheater. "They understood the
difficulties facing a small touring ensemble, as the Joffrey was then,
and they saw in Bob a man who was a real stickler about training and
technique, as they were. Similarly, Christopher [Wheeldon] has been
incredibly supportive of me since I came to the Joffrey in 2007
-- giving us the right to perform his work at the rates we could afford.
So in a way, this program also is an expression of gratitude to those
artists who have supported the Joffrey through many different times."
The challenging centerpiece on the fall program is Balanchine's
masterful "Stravinsky Violin Concerto," which pays homage to the
choreographer's great friend, composer Igor Stravinsky. Initially
devised in 1941 for the Ballet Russe, it was fully re-envisioned (and
stripped of elaborate costuming in favor of black-and-white practice
clothes) for the legendary 1972 Stravinsky Festival in New York.
The ballet's opening sequences are comprised of various quintets, and
there is a finale that draws on Georgian folk dance motifs that hint at
Balanchine's heritage. But at the center of the work are two
contrasting pas de deux (or "arias" as Wheater refers to them) that are
the principal focus of attention.
"There is so much for the dancers to understand and digest in this
work," said Wheater. "The duets especially demand such a breadth of
movement. And you really have to feel good about yourself to dance them,
to hold the stage without any costuming or sets to hide behind, and to
capture Balanchine's great musicality. It's a huge learning curve,
especially if you haven't been steeped in the Balanchine style."
Crucial to the learning process has been the fact that "Violin
Concerto" is being staged for the Joffrey by two former New York City
Ballet stars, who worked directly with Balanchine -- Bart Cook, who
danced in the 1972 performances, and his wife, Maria Calegari.
"Balanchine's choreography is so tricky, and he was such an exacting
master," said Calegari. "It is amazing to see the nuances and details he
was able to fit into a single phrase. And the steps must be presented
in a very particular way, with great speed and a special use of the
upper body. You have to understand the amount of energy to be used -- or
not used -- at any given moment."
Virtuosic technique and musical flair also will be on display in
Balanchine's "Tarantella," a duet created in 1964 and inspired by the
wild Italian folk dance. Set to the music of Louis Moreau Gottschalk
(orchestrated by Hershy Kay), it requires bravura footwork done at
Jerome Robbins' extraordinary ability to turn movement and gesture
into something close to language will be on display in "The Concert (or
The Perils of Everybody)," a great comic ballet created in 1956, just as
he was working on "West Side Story." Set to Chopin, the piece considers
how people often drift off into very personal daydreams and loopy
fantasies when listening to music.
"It is so difficult to make a really good comic ballet," said
Wheater. "But Robbins was a genius. And I think the dancers have learned
that comedy is not about doing more, but about doing just what is
called for, with an absolute marriage between every single gesture and
the musical beat."
Finally, Wheeldon, the youngest "star" on the Joffrey bill, will be
represented by "After the Rain," set to the music of Arvo Part. The
ballet, which involves some supremely intricate and difficult
partnering, begins with three couples whose movements sometimes mirror
each other. The work's second section is an extended pas de deux for one
couple that explores the shifting moods of their relationship.
Wheater hopes to present more of Wheeldon's work in the future,
including, possibly, the "Alice in Wonderland" he is now creating for
the Royal Ballet.
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