La Jolla Music Society kicks off its dance season with a big splash: the celebrated Joffrey Ballet

March 9, 2011
The San Diego Union-Tribune
Janice Steinberg

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“It’s a big hall and big ballet,” says Christopher Beach, director of the La Jolla Music Society, about the first offering in his 2011 dance season — the Joffrey Ballet.

Friday’s show is super-sized in several respects. The Joffrey is the first major ballet company Beach has presented since he launched the Music Society’s dance series four years ago. This is also the first time he has presented dance in the nearly 3,000-seat Civic Theatre, which is about four times the size of his usual venue, the Birch North Park Theatre.

The Joffrey is staging three of its largest touring pieces, by Gerald Arpino, Edwaard Liang and Jessica Lang. Casts have 10 to 16 dancers, and the set for Lang’s “Crossed” features 60-foot-long sliding panels.

For the Joffrey’s artistic director, Ashley C. Wheater: “It’s great that we’re able to do ‘Crossed’ in San Diego. A lot of theaters are not big enough.”

Friday’s program offers a taste of both the company’s history and its latest direction — as Wheater puts it, “the Joffrey that was (and) the Joffrey since I’ve taken over.”

“The Joffrey that was” reflected one of the most enduring lineages in American dance. Robert Joffrey established the troupe in 1956. After his death in 1988, leadership passed to Arpino, its longtime choreographer.

Arpino’s neoclassical “Reflections” is on the program here. “It shows off the women and the two central pas de deux are beautifully done,” Wheater said.

Wheater became the Joffrey’s artistic director in 2007. Wheater had danced with the Joffrey in the 1980s and later danced and served as ballet master at the San Francisco Ballet.

At the time Wheater took over, the Joffrey had been adding little new work to its repertory. He set out to commission work from up-and-coming choreographers, such as Liang, a Taiwanese-American artist whose credits include the New York City Ballet and Nederlands Dans Theater.

Liang’s “Age of Innocence,” a piece for 16 dancers to music by Philip Glass and Thomas Newman, was the first piece that Wheater commissioned. When it premiered in 2008, the Chicago Tribune called it “evidence of a bold, refreshing talent.”

“Crossed” uses a score by Mozart, Handel and Des Prez. “Jessica (Lang) says it has no religious context, but you can’t help it with the voices, the singing, the chorus and some of the movement,” Wheater said.

Wheater feels he’s returning to the “blueprint of Robert Joffrey, (who) was such a passionate man about new work.” Joffrey built his troupe’s reputation, in part, through risk-taking commissions, for instance, asking modern dancer Twyla Tharp to make her first ballet in 1973: “Deuce Coupe,” to Beach Boys songs.

Wheater is also continuing the Joffrey tradition of presenting modernist classics, such as Nijinsky’s “Le Sacre du Printemps,” premiered by the Ballets Russes in 1913 and recreated by the Joffrey in 1987. Next year, the company is reviving Kurt Jooss’ iconic anti-war dance, “The Green Table” (1932).

The La Jolla Music Society will be at the Birch North Park Theatre for two San Diego debuts, the Trey McIntyre Project on April 16 and Complexions Contemporary Ballet on May 7.

McIntyre, whose company is based in Boise, Idaho, is “completely contemporary with a real sense of humor,” Beach said. New York-based Complexions was founded by Alvin Ailey veterans Desmond Richardson and Dwight Rhoden.

“It’s very exciting for us,” Beach said. “I don’t expect every performance will sell out, but the audience is growing. It seems like we’re doing something right.”