You might say, "You just had to be there," about the Joffrey Ballet's 2017 world premiere of John Neumeier's reimagined Orphée et Eurydice with the Lyric Opera of Chicago. But on January 18, audiences from around the country will have a chance to witness this extraordinary collaboration up close, from the comfort of their living rooms, as PBS stations broadcast Orphée et Eurydice on "Great Performances".
Earlier this summer, we followed master pointe shoe fitter Josephine Lee of the California-based The Pointe Shop as she made her on a pointe shoe fitting tour around the West Coast and California. Now she's back, this time on a 45-day tour from California to Chicago, educating students on all things pointe shoes and helping them to find their perfect fit. Lee's making stops at top ballet companies and academies across the country, interviewing school directors and chatting with professional ballerinas to find out how they customize and break in their pointe shoes. Below, check out Lee's final stop: Chicago's Joffrey Ballet. She touches base with Ashley Wheater, artistic director of the Joffrey Ballet and the Joffrey Academy of Dance.
Ashley Wheater on the Joffrey Academy of Dance youtu.be
From June 10–23, 119 competitors from 19 countries will gather in Jackson, Mississippi, for the 11th USA International Ballet Competition. Held every four years, the USA IBC has helped launch the careers of dozens of stars, including Daniil Simkin, Misa Kuranaga and Brooklyn Mack. "The 2014 competition was good, but we're making this year better," says jury chairman John Meehan. Changes include broadened age limits for competitors and a larger sum of prize money. This summer's competition also has a special focus on Marius Petipa in honor of his 200th birthday. There will be an emphasis on Petipa repertoire, and choreographer Alexei Ratmansky will give a workshop for competitors on his reconstructions of original Petipa choreography. This edition will also honor the legacy of Robert Joffrey, who was a catalyst in launching the USA IBC with founder Thalia Mara. Dancers from The Joffrey Ballet will perform in the opening ceremony.
The first time Ashley Wheater was courted to be artistic director of the Joffrey Ballet, he said "Thanks, but no thanks"—he was very happy at San Francisco Ballet, where he'd spent eight years as a principal dancer and 10 more on the artistic staff. But a trip to the Windy City for the Chicago Dancing Festival and a visit to Joffrey's studios prompted feelings of nostalgia for Wheater's early years dancing with the company.
He was hired by co-founders Robert Joffrey and Gerald Arpino in 1985, when the company was still based in New York City and under Joffrey's direction. After Joffrey's death, Arpino became artistic director and later moved a struggling Joffrey Ballet to its current home in Chicago in 1995.
When Arpino fell ill and began to look for a successor, the company had lost much of its original adventurous spirit. Remembering its earlier spark, Wheater agreed to apply during that trip to Chicago, and accepted on the spot in 2007 after a weeklong interview process.
As the third artistic director in the company's 62-year history, Wheater has spent the last 10 years rebuilding its national reputation, tackling challenging new repertoire and reimagined classics at a ferocious pace. The rep now includes works by choreographers like Christopher Wheeldon, John Neumeier, Alexander Ekman and Yuri Possokhov. Wheater shelved many of Joffrey's and Arpino's dances to make room for new ones, preferring to honor Robert Joffrey's legacy by taking risks and fostering innovation.
Wheater. Photo by Todd Rosenberg, Courtesy Joffrey Ballet.
The Joffrey Ballet and University of California—Berkeley's Cal Performances have joined forces on a five-year residency series that offers the public in-depth, behind-the-scenes access to the art of ballet. The first installment runs Nov. 13–19 with repertory classes taught by Joffrey dancers, a panel discussion and open rehearsals as well as performances in Zellerbach Hall November 17–19.
"There is so much interesting work happening, and we want to share it," says Joffrey artistic director Ashley Wheater, whose Bay Area ties go back to his days as a San Francisco Ballet principal dancer and ballet master. He has slated Justin Peck's In Creases, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa's Mammatus, the West Coast premiere of Alexander Ekman's Joy and Joffrey ballet master Nicolas Blanc's Encounter for this year's bill.
Joffrey Ballet dancers in rehearsal for Alexsander Eckman's "Joy." Photo by Todd Rosenberg, Courtesy Cal Performances.
Joffrey Ballet dancers in Sylvia, photo by Cheryl Mann, Courtesy Joffrey
This week, the Joffrey Ballet presented the U.S. premiere of John Neumeier’s Sylvia, a contemporary take on the mythological tale created for the Paris Opéra Ballet in 1997. With modern sets and costumes by Greek artist Yannis Kokkos and a lush score by Leo Delibes, the ballet represents yet another example of artistic director Ashley Wheater’s commitment to bringing reimagined classics to Joffrey's repertoire. With another week of performances left to go, Wheater spoke with Pointe about the production and Neumeier’s creative process.
Why did you decide to bring Sylvia to Chicago, and why John Neumeier’s version as opposed to a more traditional production?
I know Sir Frederick Ashton’s version of Sylvia really well, and I had worked on Mark Morris’s at San Francisco Ballet, too. But I think that it’s okay to show that there are different ways to tell a story. And Sylvia is a tricky story. What’s compelling about John’s production is that instead of trying to fulfill a narrative line, he went back to the original 16th century poems by Torquato Tasso. He also hasn’t over-complicated the musicality—you engage fully with it. And Neumeier was born and raised near here, so in a way it’s kind of a homecoming for him.
I also think America is ready to embrace John’s ideas, because for many years, his work had a hard time here. But the Chicago audience has been so enthusiastic and engaged. And I find it really interesting right now—San Francisco Ballet did his The Little Mermaid, Houston Ballet did his Midsummer Night’s Dream, Boston Ballet is about to premiere his Mahler’s Third Symphony. I think in the ballet world, there’s a shift that’s happening. People want to see new ideas.
What has working with Neumeier been like for the Joffrey dancers?
It’s been an amazing experience for the company. John is deeply thoughtful and really thinks about why he does something. He’s also not in the business of recreating his work—he’s in the business of creating work, so he made a huge amount of changes here in Chicago. As a living choreographer, he wanted to work directly with the dancers and use what they were bringing to the process. The company feels very inspired, because he goes beyond, "This is what the step is, this is the musicality." He wants you to dig for layers that are honest, that are coming from you.
The female characters in Sylvia are very empowered. Do you feel that the ballet has a lot of resonance for modern audiences?
If you go back to the original premiere in 1878, it broke away from the Romantic idea of story and tradition. It was quite radical at the time. The huntresses are fierce, determined women who are independent in their own right. In the original version of Sylvia, Diana had such a little role—she only appeared in the third act. But in John’s version, she’s very front and center. He added a lament for Diana revealing her love for Endymion—because of her love, she put him into eternal sleep to protect herself—to show us why she’s so protective of Sylvia. She doesn’t want her to make the same mistake. And she doesn’t win that battle—she loses Sylvia to love, and at the end Diana is the one who is still searching for the very thing that she craves.
If I look at Ashton’s choreography, it’s brilliant. It’s very much about the structure and architecture of the steps, which is so magical. But John’s version takes those layers and gets to the very heart of it. It’s about how in our life today we strive so much—like how dancers strive every day for their art form—and that because of ambition, we sometimes overlook our very deep, inner yearnings. John shows us that humanity very clearly.
The Joffrey Ballet has presented many narrative ballets during its 58-year history. But until last October, it had never waded into the waters of that quintessential test for any classical ballet company, Swan Lake.
So when artistic director Ashley Wheater decided the time was ripe to meet this challenge, he wanted something special. He felt the ideal version of the work was one he had seen a decade earlier—Christopher Wheeldon's reimagining of Swan Lake, created for the Pennsylvania Ballet in 2004.
For anyone interested in dancing with The Joffrey, the important thing to understand is that we are a non-ranked company—every dancer must be willing to do everything. Of course there are always leading dancers, but we couldn’t do something like The Rite of Spring unless everyone was invested in being part of the corps, as well as possibly dancing a principal role.
There are 42 dancers in The Joffrey now and not a huge amount of turnover. We are in dire economic times, so the key for me is to have dancers who are intensely committed to the company, who are contributing fully and who are being cast. I hope to stage Lar Lubovitch’s Othello in the fall of 2009, and Ashton’s Cinderella in 2010, so that requires at least 38 dancers. We operate on a year-by-year, 38-week contract, so I look at the budget, see what I need and figure out who does not need to be replaced. I am currently looking for a couple of strong male dancers and a few strong women, too.
I want fully trained dancers who know how to use the strength they have. I am far more particular than Gerald Arpino about women having really strong pointe work, with the ability to roll through their feet. For men, double tours, attitude turns and four or five pirouettes are givens. I also want real men who can run with power and weight, who can really do things. And the demands of most contemporary ballets make strong partnering skills absolutely essential.
Like Jerry, I am not looking for perfect cookie-cutter bodies, though obviously good physique and technique are important. But each individual is worth so much more than just his or her physical looks.
I don’t have a vision of the ideal dancer; mostly, it’s that you see someone dance and they just capture you. While I love dancers with individuality, they also must be able to dance in a group. I like genuine, honest movement—no affectations. An instant turn-off for me is a dancer with no understanding of the upper body or the use of the back, head and arms. And I don’t like people who want to dance in your face.
I always focus on enchaînements—those movement phrases that show me how the dancer connects the steps, finds the rhythm and musicality of a sequence and uses the port de bras. If a young dancer is “present,” and picks up combinations quickly, he or she just might be strong enough.
Robert Joffrey used to give extremely strict and rigid classes, but on stage, he expected so much athleticism and freedom. When I was with San Francisco Ballet, our auditions always included one Paul Taylor combination to see how a dancer could run, roll on the floor and keep moving. That is crucial.
For The Joffrey, even if there is no open spot, we generally hold two formal auditions each year—one in Chicago and one in New York. And I don’t mind if an interested dancer wants to take company class, unless we’re in a very busy rehearsal period. For the handful remaining at the end of an audition, I always talk with them. And if they say they need job security, I advise them to consider a European company.
Get Pointe in your inbox
The Joffrey Ballet of Chicago recently hired nine new dancers—and they’re a notably diverse group, hailing from Cuba, Venezuela and Brazil, as well as the U.S.
“I want the company to reflect Chicago’s diversity, and I was conscious of the Joffrey’s past, when dancers like Chilean Maximiliano Zomosa were part of the troupe,” says Artistic Director Ashley Wheater. “Also, because the Joffrey is a no-stars-yet-all-stars company, I was, as always, looking for talented, hardworking people.”
Of the three new international dancers, two approached Wheater on their own. Cuban-bred Miguel Blanco, who was also offered contracts by ABT and San Francisco Ballet, opted for the Joffrey because, as Wheater puts it, “he knew he would get a chance to really dance with us.” Yumelia Garcia, whom Wheater describes as “a real spitfire,” was born in Caracas but grew up in Rockford, IL, and went to see Wheater at the urging of her friend, Joffrey dancer April Daly. Ricardo Santos de Paula, from Rio de Janeiro, was a bronze medalist at the 10th New York International Ballet Competition, for which Wheater served as a judge. De Paula earned the NYIBC’s Arpino Award, which comes with a one- year Joffrey contract. —Hedy Weiss