Joffrey to focus on 'story ballet' in 2014-15 season

February 18, 2014
The Chicago Sun-Times
Hedy Weiss


It’s always best to strike while the iron is hot. So it makes perfect sense that the Joffrey Ballet has announced its 2014-2015 season — which also happens to mark its 20th year as a Chicago-based company — at the very moment it is dancing up a storm in the eye-opening “Contemporary Choreographers” program running through Feb. 23 at the Auditorium Theatre.

Among the highlights for next season: The Chicago premieres of James Kudelka’s ballet set to the music of Johnny Cash; a newly envisioned “Swan Lake” choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon; a new work by Justin Peck, a rising young choreographic star of the New York City Ballet; and a rare cameo performance by Ashley Wheater, artistic director of the Joffrey, portraying the father in a revival of George Balanchine’s early masterpiece, “Prodigal Son.”

The focus throughout the season will be on narrative in dance, exploring the concept of “story ballet” with a series of both repertory and evening-length works that each tell a story in a freshly conceived way. This programming dovetails ideally with the Joffrey’s receipt of a $500,000 challenge grant from the Rudolf Nureyev Dance Foundation designed to provide an endowment to help support the creation and production of full-length story ballets.

Here is a closer look at the Joffrey’s plans:

± For the second year, following the success of the Joffrey’s “Russian Masters” program that launched the 2013-14 season, an additional season opener will be presented. This one-weekend-only engagement (Sept. 18-21), will feature the return of two Joffrey repertory favorites — Balanchine’s “Prodigal Son,” set to the music of Prokofiev, and Anthony Tudor’s achingly romantic “Lilac Garden,” to music by Ernest Chausson. Also on the bill will be the Joffrey/Chicago premiere of Yuri Possokhov’s Asian-themed “RakU.” [cq] Possokhov, resident choreographer of the San Francisco Ballet, has set “RakU” to music by Shinji Eshima, with modernist, sepia-toned costumes and a set design with projections and moving screens. It tells the tale of a Japanese emperor, his wife and a jealous monk driven mad by obsessive love.

± The fall program (Oct. 15-26), will see the Joffrey/Chicago premiere of “Swan Lake,” newly envisioned by Wheeldon, one of ballet’s most acclaimed choreographers. This $1.5 million production, with lavish costumes by Jean-Marc Puissant and scenic design by Adrianne Lobel, is set to the familiar Tchaikovsky score and modeled after the original choreography, but Wheeldon has set it in the 19th century milieu of the Paris Opera Ballet. The ballet uses imagery from Edgar Degas’s paintings to create an Opera Ballet studio where a young boy, Siegfried, daydreams of escaping rehearsal for the lake, while the ensemble prepares for a major opening night gala. The ballerinas and their wealthy patrons serve as the central characters in this re-telling of a classic.

± The annual holiday chestnut, Robert Joffrey’s “The Nutcracker,” runs Dec. 5-28.

± The winter program (Feb. 11-22, 2015), will feature three company premieres by contemporary choreographers: James Kudelka’s “The Man in Black,” in which three men and a woman, all in cowboy boots, dance to six Johnny Cash songs that reflect working-class grit and tenderness, and shift from ballet to country western dance styles; Stanton Welch’s “Maninyas,” also for a small ensemble, set to the music of Australian composer Ross Edwards and involving dancers moving in and out of a series of shimmering veils; and Alexander Ekman’s “Tulle,” a ballet about ballet by the Swedish choreographer whose “Episode 31” is now delighting audiences at the Auditorium.

± The spring program (April 22-May 3, 2015), will feature the Joffrey/Chicago premiere of Peck’s 2012 work, “In Creases,” set to Philip Glass’ “Four Movements for Two Pianos”; the world premiere of a work by British choreographer Ashley Page; and “Evenfall,” by the Joffrey’s own ballet master, Nicolas Blanc. Blanc chreographed the work specifically for a 2013 event in France featuring Joffrey dancers Derrick Agnoletti, Fabrice Calmels, Rory Hohenstein, Anastacia Holden and Victoria Jaiani. Set to Max Richter’s “The Four Seasons,” this lyrical piece follows the lives of a couple at the beginning of their romance, and then on through their autumn years.

All performances will take place at the Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress, with various programs throughout the season featuring live orchestral accompaniment by the Chicago Philharmonic conducted by Scott Speck, music firector of The Joffrey Ballet.

Three-program subscriptions, which do not include the September engagement or “The Nutcracker,” start at $84 and will go on sale Feb. 19. For full information call (312) 386-8905 or visit

Email: hweiss [at] suntimes [dot] com

Twitter: @HedyWeissCritic