Partnership between Cleveland Orchestra, Joffrey Ballet endures despite bump in the road

August 14, 2011
The Plain Dealer
Zachary Lewis


Roger MastroianniA unique aerial view of last year's performance by the Joffrey Ballet with the Cleveland Orchestra at Blossom Music Center. The two companies are set to collaborate again Aug. 20 and 21.

Three years old (and counting), the partnership between the Cleveland Orchestra and Chicago's Joffrey Ballet just about constitutes a tradition.

But if it's starting to seem as though dance has a permanent place on the calendar at Blossom Music Center, events this summer very nearly proved that supposition wrong -- and almost nipped a burgeoning relationship in the bud.

Luckily, the labor dispute that rocked the Joffrey last month was relatively short and ended with a new five-year contract. Yet for a few stressful weeks, it looked as if the company's appearances here Saturday, Aug. 20 and Sunday, Aug. 21, a highlight of the 2011 Blossom Festival, were not meant to be.

Not until mid-July, in fact, when the orchestra was in New York playing Bruckner, did resolution arrive, calming the nerves of patrons and performers alike with the news that the Cleveland-Joffrey collaboration would indeed be going forward.


Cleveland Orchestra/Joffrey Ballet

What: The third annual summer collaboration, with the orchestra playing in the pit.

When: 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, Aug. 21.

Where:: Blossom Music Center, 1145 W. Steels Corners Road, Cuyahoga Falls.

Tickets:: $23-$93. Go to or call 216-231-1111.

"I'm really glad it's settled," said Ashley Wheater, the Joffrey's artistic director. "Everyone is aware that this relationship is really special, and it would have been awful to damage it. The dancers just love it, and they really didn't want to miss it."

Details of the conflict are the subject of another story. Suffice it to say, it had to do with compensation, benefits and working conditions, as with almost all strikes.

"We were all a bit nervous," said former Cleveland Orchestra assistant conductor Tito Munoz, who's been invited back to the Blossom pit to lead both performances this weekend.

But if the issues at the Joffrey weren't unique, the ramifications -- had the work stoppage lasted longer than it did -- certainly would have been, as the Cleveland concerts serve as the company's season opener.

Moreover, the project as a whole -- an ongoing partnership between an orchestra and a ballet troupe -- is rare, and upsetting it would have been a blow to the arts in general.

"The days of doing things together, they just don't seem to happen so much anymore," Wheater said. "But people are always completely wowed by it."

But even that isn't all that was on the line. It also would have been unfortunate for Cleveland-area patrons to lose out on this year's program, an unusually appealing mix of contemporary and established choreography and a distinctly musical evening.

So rich is the musical dimension of the program, in fact, that as the Joffrey stoppage continued, many in the public began speculating that the orchestra would simply perform the scheduled works in concert, without the dancers.

"Luckily for us, [Wheater] has a great musical mind," said Munoz, who also spent time with the company last winter, conducting its touring production of "The Nutcracker."

"Everything has an important musical element. That's usually what I feel with the Joffrey, that we're really making music together."

By way of contemporary music, there's "Night," by Julia Adam, set to an eclectic soundtrack by New York composer Matthew Pierce; Christopher Wheeldon's "After the Rain," based on music by Estonian minimalist Arvo Part; and the duet from Lar Lubovitch's "Othello," featuring a score by Elliot Goldenthal.

The Wheeldon piece, Munoz said, "looks impossible. You don't even feel time anywhere at all." As for "Othello," Wheater said the scene is a dramatic except from the full-length ballet he hopes to bring to Cleveland in 2013, if the partnership continues.

"I wanted to give people a sense of it," he said. "If we can always be there, we would love to be."

But modern works comprise only half the story. This year's program also is heavily steeped in the legacy of George Balanchine, founder of New York City Ballet and one of the most significant choreographers of all time.

Representing him this weekend are two works: the lively pas de deux from his setting of Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake" and his vision of the Stravinsky Violin Concerto, whose solo part will be played by Cleveland Orchestra associate concertmaster Jung-Min Amy Lee.

"Swan Lake" and "Othello" may be story ballets, but don't look for expansive sets and props. As in years past, the emphasis at these concerts will be on the dancing, with costumes and lighting serving to round out the spectacle.

As the Cleveland Orchestra's go-to ballet conductor, Munoz possesses special insight on the art of making music with dancers.

It's a special challenge, he said, different from accompanying singers or solo instrumentalists. In addition to conducting the orchestra, he must also communicate with, and respond to, a whole cast of people acting independently.

"I have to be that much more on the ball," Munoz said, "and they really have to be with me."

Perhaps a similar principle applies to the relationship between the Joffrey and the Cleveland Orchestra. Neither party can take the other for granted -- and while things don't always run smoothly, the results can be extraordinary.

"Collaboration across the board is a very good way to look at something more than singularly," Wheater said. "You're bringing together two beautiful things."