Preview: Death & Ballet: Joffrey w/ The Cleveland Orchestra

August 30, 2010
Cool Cleveland
Elsa Johnson and Victor Lucas


Death and Ballet
Joffrey comes alive with The Cleveland Orchestra

The Joffrey Ballet performs with the Cleveland Orchestra at Blossom this weekend, a rare opportunity for local audiences to see professional ballet.

It’s less than 2 years since the death of co-founder Gerald Arpino and the Joffrey is still the Joffrey. Under their new Artistic Director Ashley Wheater they’re still eclectic, still doing worthwhile revivals, still commissioning exciting new work.

Arpino never got a lot of critical respect as a choreographer, but Joffrey revivals make an increasingly compelling case for the lasting appeal of his work. A case in point is Reflections (1971), a neoclassical dance for 3 couples and 4 women; each of the couples is featured in a pas de deux and each of the 4 women gets a solo. Conventional wisdom has it that Arpino was good at pas de deux and solos but not ensembles, so Reflections provides a test of that hypothesis: We will see for ourselves.

We understand that some residents of Chicago — where the Joffrey makes its home — will be coming in by bus to see their company perform with a live orchestra for a change. In Chicago, Reflections was performed with live cello and a piano reduction of the orchestral score. At Blossom we’ll hear Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme for Cello and Orchestra, Opus 33 with Mark Kosower on cello and the Cleveland Orchestra.

Whenever we go to the ballet, it’s always, “What’s next?” What will ballet dancers and choreographers do with 400 years of technical development and synthesis with other dance forms? Two of the ballets in this weekend’s program, both commissioned by the Joffrey, provide very different answers.

When we first started learning about Age of Innocence (2008) we clicked on this link to an excerpts video:

We were immediately struck by the visually rewarding patterns of the 16 dancers. Delicious successions and multipart canons that filled the stage to the music of Philip Glass reminded us of the devices of 70′s choreographer Laura Dean, except that this is better than Dean at her best. We’ve always felt that Dean was overrated, that her ideas were underdeveloped; in Age of Innocence, we suspect we’ll see what Dean should have done with ballet dancers, multipart canons, and minimalist music.

Unfortunately, choreographer Edwaard Liang has chosen to share his inspiration for Age of Innocence in a widely circulated interview:

Liang was inspired, he explains, by the novels of Jane Austen and their context of constrained courtships and arranged marriages, a social and emotional subtext that has remained completely invisible as we’ve repeatedly watched the excerpts video. Every review we’ve read has made similar complaint and ignored the obvious visual appeal of Age of Innocence. Dear Reader, put these quarrels from your mind and watch Liang’s lovely choreography; he has every right to whatever inspiration he can find, but the moment those thoughts are trotted into public they risk exposure as purely personal hobby horses.

The costumes in Age of Innocence, lovely amalgams of the antique and the contemporary, fall prey to similar objections from the critics. Should designer Maria Pinto have shown more historical accuracy in the women’s gowns? Should she have shown less of the men’s thighs? Again, we will try not to over-think.

Another new piece on this weekend’s program, James Kudelka’s Pretty BALLET, apparently represents the latest in his series of ballets about ballet. Pretty BALLET is packed with allusions to other ballets; early on we see the women in long white tulle skirts, reminiscent perhaps of Giselle, Les Sylphides, or Serenade; one of the women wears bright red pointe shoes, surely a reference to The Red Shoes, the 1948 movie about ballet. What to make of all this?

Knowing a little about Kudelka, we find it impossible to imagine him choreographing anything that’s merely a pretty ballet. Picture 10-year-old enfant terrible James Kudelka as Harry Potter, glasses and all, before the Sorting Hat. Ballet school? Violin? Ballet school! So it’s off to (Canadian) National Ballet School and at 16 he’s a rising soloist and budding choreographer at National Ballet of Canada, then a stormy departure to Les Grands Ballets Canadiens and a rapid rise there to principal dancer and choreographer. Choreography? Performance? Choreography! Followed by prodigious output as a freelance choreographer and then back to National Ballet of Canada as Artist in Residence and then as Artistic Director, a post he resigned in 2005. Choreography? Artistic Director? Choreography! And what kind of choreography, oh Sorting Hat? The usual kind? No, the unusual kind of choreography, for the Sorting Hat has spoken.

George Balanchine’s Tarantella is, as he described it in Balanchine’s Complete Stories of the Great Ballets, “one of a long series of short ballets I have made for the gifts of specific dancers; it is ‘Neapolitan’ if you like and there are tambourines.” Set to Louis Gottschalk’s Grande Tarantelle for Piano and Orchestra as arranged by Hershy Kay. This weekend’s performance features Joela Jones, piano.

We cannot look forward to a performance of Le Corsaire pas de deux without looking back to American Ballet Theater’s 2006 performance of the complete ballet at Playhouse Square. For us it was as if we’d ingested some powerful recreational drug that suddenly revealed the fun side of piracy, slavery, and the clash of civilizations. We’re still savoring the memory of that buzz, hoping for Le Corsaire 2, the even more politically incorrect sequel.

Until that sequel appears, we’ll have to get by with occasional performances of the pas de deux, complete with dashing Arabian pirate, bare-chested and – ever since Nureyev – a feather in his headband, dancing with beautiful, free-spirited harem girl.

Cleveland-centric publication that we are, we try to stay alert to the local-person-makes-good angle, but this year we missed a truly incredible success story. Yumelia Garcia, who began her North American career with Heinz Poll’s Ohio Ballet, is in her first year with the Joffrey — and she’s a star already! According to this, , she auditioned last January and immediately landed the lead in Cinderella.

Intervening years of ballet classes and reportedly lots of cross-training and pilates have changed Garcia’s body beyond recognition, but this is definitely the same young woman that local audiences and dancers will remember from Northeast Ohio stages and studios. Watch for her in Reflections.

Joffrey Ballet joins Cleveland Orchestra for 2 performances at Blossom Music Center, 1145 W Steels Corners Rd, Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio 44223, at 8:30PM on Saturday, 9/4/10 and Sunday, 9/5/10. All 5 ballets will be performed both nights. Tickets $93 Box, $23 Lawn with children 12 and under FREE.

Tickets on sale through Severance Hall Ticket Office, Blossom Music Center Box Office, and online at and at all Ticketmaster outlets. To charge tickets by phone, call Cleveland Orchestra Ticket Services at (216) 231-1111 or (800) 686-1141 during the regular Severance Hall Ticket Office hours.