The Joffrey Ballet hasn't performed in Houston for 13 years, so in a sense its return Friday is a first visit. Many dance companies don't survive losing their founders, and the 58-year old Joffrey went through a crisis after the death of Robert Joffrey in 1988. In the mid-1990s, co-founder Gerald Arpino kept the company alive by moving it from New York to Chicago.
Today, it's thriving under artistic director Ashley Wheater, who arrived in 2007, a year before Arpino died. Chicago has embraced the company, whose studios now occupy two floors of a high-rise commercial tower downtown named Joffrey Tower. Wheater, who's from Great Britain, danced many years with San Francisco Ballet after starting his career at the Royal Ballet, London Festival Ballet and the Australian Ballet.
Q: What will surprise Houstonians about today's Joffrey?
A: We've toured 22 cities in the past year, and people have really been taken with the quality of the dancing. The Joffrey has been through its ups and downs, but it's on a real upswing now. We have 40 dancers; the company is incredibly energized, working really hard.
Q: What do you look for in dancers?
A: At the Royal Ballet, they measured you, and you were assigned roles based on that. Robert Joffrey said, "Dancers come in all shapes and sizes; talent doesn't come in one shape." We have some leading dancers who are over 6 feet tall and some who are tiny. We're not a cookie-cutter company.
Q: Friday's "American Legends" program looks like a good mix, too.
A: It's a little bit like yesterday and today. At a certain point when a company is very young, they're ideal for Jerome Robbins' "Interplay," which is very difficult technically. It's so beautifully crafted, and we don't hear much of Morton Gould's music these days.
And, of course, Joffrey gave Twyla Tharp her big break with "Deuce Coupe." We're performing her "Nine Sinatra Songs," which requires a lot of individuals; you have to have the right people to bring out each of the personalities. It's nostalgic, but they bring a lot to it; it's more than just some steps.
Joffrey Ballet's Miguel Blanco and Victoria Jainai perform in Stanton Welch's "Son of Chamber Symphony," one of four works on the program when the company performs Friday at Jones Hall.
Christopher Wheeldon's "After the Rain" has been in the repertoire for a while now. And Stanton Welch created "Son of Chamber Symphony" for us in 2012. He has talent and a beautiful craft. It's based on John Adams' score; he's one of America's great living composers.
Q: The Joffrey recently sold out 12 performances of Welch's "La Bayadere," right?
A: Yes. It's been a big success.
Q: And you've also introduced other classical works?
A: People think I'm a traditionalist, but I danced with Robert Joffrey from 1984 to about 1989, and the years with him were transformative. We keep that spirit whether it's with newly created works or honoring great pieces in the repertoire.
Our season is about 50/50 with mixed reps and full-length productions. I've added a lot of full-lengths because as Chicago's resident company, we have to look after fundamentals, the language of classical ballet. But we also push forward with new work. We do at least two mixed-rep programs a year; and for touring, they're more affordable for a lot of presenters.
Joffrey Ballet's April Daly and Fabrice Calmels in a scene from Twyla Tharp's "Nine Sinatra Songs," one of four works on the program March 21 when Society for the Performing Arts presents the company at Jones Hall. Photo by Herbert Migdoll
Q: What's next for the Joffrey?
A: We've just received a $500,000 matching grant from the Rudolf Nureyev Dance Foundation that will give us an endowment for the development of new story ballets. At the end of April, we're performing Krzysztof Pastor's new "Romeo and Juliet," which is set in fascist Italy and moves forward in decades. Next season opens with Christopher Wheeldon's "Swan Lake," which is set in a ballet studio. I want to do a new "Coppelia" and have also been thinking about "Anna Karenina."
Q: People still think of the Joffrey as quintessentially American.
A: It is an American classic but the world has become globalized; all of us have come from somewhere. It's a beautiful tapestry. We also want to be an outlet for American talent, including choreographers and collaborators as well as dancers. We just did a weeklong intensive with about 600 young dancers in Virginia who had never seen Tharp or Robbins. It was such an eye-opener for them.
When: 8 p.m. Friday
Where: Jones Hall, 615 Louisiana
Tickets: $23-$103; 713-227-4772, spahouston.org
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