Troupe puts younger dancers in spotlight

January 27, 2011
Detroit News
Barbara Hoover


In a welcome change of pace, the Joffrey Ballet Chicago visits the Detroit Opera House this weekend with two programs of short ballets, instead of the holiday "Nutcracker" it has brought to Detroit in recent years. While its "Nutcracker" is one of the best around, this visit gives Detroiters a chance to see a wider range of the Joffrey's considerable talents.

Artistic director Ashley Wheater, who took over the company in 2007, has made a point of giving younger dancers a chance at bigger roles, so Detroiters should notice an invigorated spirit in the performances.

"Promoting younger dancers has been amazing," says Wheater. "So many new people are doing extremely well. When you give people the opportunity, you watch the whole company grow."

Wheater's approach has been to give those younger dancers plenty of time to understand a piece in depth.

"If you don't have time to develop a piece of work, to let the dancers bring out the larger meaning, you get a shallow facsimile," he says. "I expect something total from the company, to get people to understand what they are doing. The steps have to have intention."

Detroiters will have a chance to find out if the approach works.

The programs cover a wide range of Joffrey styles, with the entire 42-member company visiting. The programs begin with two pieces by Joffrey co-founder, the late Gerald Arpino, which Wheater says honor the 10th anniversary of the Friends of the Joffrey Detroit branch.

They are Arpino's "Reflections," a serene neoclassic work to a Tchaikovsky cello concerto, and "Sea Shadows, a pas de deux to the Ravel Piano Concerto, with a live chamber orchestra.

Then the versatile Joffrey moves to choreographer Lar Lubovitch's "Smile With My Heart," a piece for six dancers to Richard Rodgers music also played by the chamber orchestra.

Following on the Saturday program is "Age of Innocence," a new piece by Ed Liang, the first to be commissioned by Wheater since he took the company helm. It takes inspiration from Jane Austen, and has a score by Philip Glass and Thomas Newman. Wheater calls it the new signature piece for the company.

Sunday afternoon's program repeats those dances with one exception. Instead of the Liang piece, audiences will see a new work by James Kudelka called "Pretty Ballet." Its score by Czech composer Bohuslav Martinu, commissioned by the Cleveland Orchestra, has a war theme. Wheater calls it a "haunting piece of music that requires outstanding technique." It begins with a pas de deux, then expands to five men, then 28 dancers.

"It's technically hard and beautiful, a huge piece," Wheater says.

For a hard-times town like Detroit, Wheater thinks a hard-work art form like ballet can be both a relief and an inspiration.

"If we don't have the arts, we do not have a place to imagine, a place to escape and be creative," he says.