Norton gives intimate experience with Joffrey Ballet

April 14, 2011
The Cento
Elise Murrell


On April 7 a variety of students, professors, locals and travelers flocked to the Norton Center for the Arts to watch a performance by the awe-inspiring Joffrey Ballet, their second-to-last stop on what has been an eleven-city tour.

“The Joffrey Ballet,” said Norton’s Executive Director Steve Hoffman, “is one of the most incredible contemporary dance companies in America.” This “Company of Firsts” has many accolades under its belt, which include, according to the official website, being the first dance company to perform at the White House at Jacqueline Kennedy’s invitation, the first to appear on television, the first American company to visit Russia, the first classical dance company to go multimedia, the first to commission a rock ‘n’ roll ballet, the first and only dance company to appear on the cover of Time magazine and the first company to have had a major motion picture based on it, Robert Altman’s The Company.

Hoffman discovered the talent of the Joffrey in the early 90s when he saw one of their performances in Detroit. “I learned that they had commissioned some hip choreographers to create new dance works, each to different songs by the pop star Prince,” Hoffman said. “[I] was in complete awe ... we were all amazed by the brilliant choreography and incredible dancers.”

Hoffman gave select students their own unique opportunity to interact with the ballet on a more personal level via a discussion with the Joffrey’s own Artistic Director Ashley C. Wheater, followed by the chance to watch the tech rehearsal. “Any opportunity to go ‘behind the scenes’ and interact with the top professionals in a field,” Hoffman said, “be it an athlete, astronaut, educator, politician, author or artist, provides a chance to gain insights beyond what is found in books or discussed in class.” He intimated that the Norton Center staff has already partnered with faculty to structure a number of similar interactions with visiting artists next year. Centre students and a few students from the School for Creative and Performing Arts in Lexington dropped by for the discussion in order to glean some knowledge about the Joffrey Ballet.

For example, Wheater discussed the importance of a tech rehearsal at every location.

“Every single venue is different ... there’s a different stage, a different lighting crew and we always lay our own floor,” he said. At Norton the fly-loft needed to be brought in, for example, and the stage is not as deep as the one the dancers performed on at Indiana University (the previous stop on the tour). During the tech rehearsal itself, a kind of orderly chaos ensued while these modifications were being made: the dancers reviewed their numbers and formations as the lighting dimmed, brightened and changed shades, the floor was tested and spacing was adjusted.

Wheater also expressed his admiration for the performers. “It’s been a really amazing experience for the dancers ... [the tour] requires a very different kind of stamina.” Constantly being on the road, enduring different eating and sleeping patterns, and of course performing very rigorous numbers has been quite the challenge. But these men and women are professionals from all over the world, from Paris to the Philippines, most of whom have been in formal training programs for nine or more years. This is what they live for, and it certainly showed in their performance that evening.

The program consisted of four distinct movements, each one with its own unique music and style.

Reflections, set to Tchaikovsky’s “Variations on a Rococo Theme for Cello and Orchestra, op. 33,” was what many people would reflexively think of when they hear the word “ballet”: “A neoclassical, pure dance ballet ... high lifts, a flying pace and classic beauty,” according to the program. The costumes were simple and elegant, allowing for a clear view of the concise, fluid and graceful movements of each dancer.

... smile with my heart” included four different sections, each portraying the relationship of a different couple. The dances slowly progressed from a number that included some jazzy and swing-like movements to one with a more Latin feel, and eventually ended with an incredibly physical and passionate number that was almost acrobatic in its intensity.

Sea Shadow, which is based off of the German fable of Ondine (a kind of water nymph), was beautifully modern. Both the male and female dancer in this couple’s performance showed extreme physical endurance as they moved together and apart, in regular ballet form and in gymnastic poses. The dance begins as the nymph wakes up a man on the beach and ends as the couple “swims” together as one being towards the audience.

The closing number, Age of Innocence, depicts the story of women in the late 18th and early 19th centuries as inspired by the stories of Jane Austen. This “story of societal repression and ... strength of the human spirit,” as described by the program, was at once precise and yet allowed the raw emotion and feeling of the entire troupe to come shining through. The piece began with the type of formal line-dancing typical in Austen’s time, partner against partner, and gradually opened up into a kaleidoscope of formations. At the end the partners were again in line-dance form, leaving the stage hand-in-hand.

The Joffrey Ballet put on an incredibly forceful and moving performance. The dancers exemplified the finesse of ballet without letting us forget the power behind even the subtlest of movements. Hoffman hopes that the interaction with Wheater, seeing the tech rehearsal and viewing the formal production itself was not only an educational experience, but an inspirational one as well, “igniting the fire to pursue dance as a career or simply to have a deeper appreciation for how dance works as a form.”

No matter what level, it was clear in the multiple standing ovations and calls of “bravo!” that the audience enjoyed the beauty and mastery that the Joffrey exhibited during their performance at Norton.