Ballet Stars

Dancing Among Singers: John Neumeier's Collaboration with Joffrey Ballet and the Lyric Opera of Chicago

The Joffrey Ballet rehearses "Orphée et Eurydice." Photo by Andrew Cioffi, Courtesy of Lyric Opera.

Song and dance are an enduring artistic pairing. In the early days of ballet, the art form usually appeared in the realm of professional theater via dance scenes in operas. But ballet and opera certainly still mingle today.

The Joffrey Ballet is currently in rehearsals for its very first collaboration with the Lyric Opera of Chicago in John Neumeier's new production of Christoph Willibald Gluck's Orphée et Eurydice. The 18th-century opera, which runs from September 23-October 15 at the Lyric Opera House, is based on the Greek myth of Orpheus and his quest to bring his bride, Eurydice, back from the dead.



How is preparing for an opera different than preparing for a ballet?


For Neumeier, the process of creating choreography is the same, but he says he must always keep in mind the structure of the performance and the melding of dancers and singers. "There has to be a harmony between those artists who certainly will not move in the same way and a constant thinking of synthesizing two theatrical worlds," he explains. "The choreography has to have the worth it would have if it were a ballet—it just happens to be within the framework of an opera."

For Joffrey dancers Victoria Jaiani and Derrick Agnoletti, the synthesizing of theatrical worlds means that rehearsals are more hands on. "The singers are incorporated into some of the movement, so we are helping them learn the steps," says Jaiani. "We are also moving scenery and sets. Making sure we have the things in the right place at the right time in the music is vital to the success of the performance."


John Neumeier rehearsing Joffrey Ballet dancers in "Orphée et Eurydice." Photo by by Andrew Cioffi, Courtesy of Lyric Opera.

There are also many more production elements for dancers to be aware of. "Our choreography is combined with the location of the singers and the different layers of the story," explains Agnoletti. He likewise says that all departments involved with the production are usually present in the studio. "At first, it was overwhelming, but, as you get used to it, you become familiar with the many different stage hands, wardrobe staff, and singers present."

But though there are differences in rehearsing an opera versus a ballet, dancers can relate to and be inspired by the work of opera singers. "Music is what drives dance, so we share that common passion," says Jaiani. "It's interesting to see how we hear the music and interpret it with the choreography through their voices."


Victoria Jaiani rehearsing "Orphée et Eurydice". Photo by Andrew Cioffi, Courtesy of Lyric Opera.

"Watching the singers in their quiet moments after they run a section or listening to them breathe during an aria are things that we, as dancers, are not accustomed to," adds Agnoletti. "But what makes us alike is how we investigate ballet and work. It is quite a similar commitment and makes working together so easy. We practice different art forms, but they are both classical and mesh beautifully."

Ballet Careers
Gray Davis with wife, ABT soloist Cassandra Trenary, after his graduation from the South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy. Courtesy Trenary.

When Gray Davis retired from American Ballet Theatre in July of 2018, he moved home to South Carolina, unsure of what would come next. Last month, just over a year later, Davis graduated from the South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy. Today, he's working as a deputy for the Abbeville County Sheriff's Office.

Though Davis danced in ABT's corps for 11 years and is married to soloist Cassandra Trenary, to many he's best known for saving the life of a man who was pushed onto the subway tracks in New York City in 2017. The heroic effort earned him the New York State Liberty Medal, the highest civilian honor bestowed by a member of the New York State Senate. We caught up with Davis to hear about how the split second decision he made in the subway affected the course of his life, what it's been like starting a second career and what he sees as the similarities between ballet and law enforcement.

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Sponsored by BLOCH
Courtesy BLOCH

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The team at BLOCH developed their line of Stretch Pointe shoes to address dancer's most common complaints about the fit and performance of their pointe shoes. "It's a scientific take on the pointe shoe," says Roe. Dancers are taking notice and Stretch Pointe shoes are now worn by stars like American Ballet Theatre principal Isabella Boylston, who stars in BLOCH's latest campaign for the shoes.

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Megan Amanda Ehrlich, Courtesy LEAP Program

Claire Sheridan wanted to change the status quo. Leading up to the 1990s, she recalls, "there was a 'shut up and dance' mind-set," and as the founder of the dance program at St. Mary's College of California and a longtime teacher in professional companies, she had seen too many dancers retire with no plan for a successful career transition. "At that time, if you thought about education and the future," she says, "you were not a committed dancer. I wanted to fight that."

With the support of St. Mary's, Sheridan developed the Liberal Education for Arts Professionals program, or LEAP, an innovative liberal-arts bachelor's degree program designed especially for professional dancers. She first presented her idea to executives at San Francisco Ballet. "Kudos to that company, because they said, 'This is great,'" she says. "Eleven of the first 18 dancers who started in August 1999 were from SFB."

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I'm a college freshman, and my dance program isn't challenging enough. We only have ballet three times a week and a few hours of modern, and my classmates aren't as dedicated as I am. There's a small dance company nearby, where I was hoping to take extra classes, but I don't have a car. I want to transfer, but I feel like I won't be in good enough shape for auditions. —Tara

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