Ballet Stars
Quinn Wharton

The Joffrey Ballet's Jeraldine Mendoza is a minimalist. This is evident from her well-organized sewing kit to her slim Goyard wallet, which she bought in Paris while on tour with the company last summer. "I never carry cash; all that's in there is my ID and my credit cards," she says. She keeps her wallet, phone and keys in her red Kenzo bucket bag, and her pointe shoes and other dancewear and accessories in her Baggu duffel. "I like things in order," she says. "Knowing where everything is is a priority for me."

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Ballet Stars
A madcap solstice celebration: The Joffrey Ballet in Alexander Ekman's Midsummer Night's Dream. Photo by Cheryl Mann, Courtesy Joffrey Ballet.

During Alexander Ekman's Midsummer Night's Dream, a singer croons: "By morning the dancers/Will start to wonder/Had it all been a dream?/Had it all been a blunder?" While The Joffrey Ballet's performances of Ekman's 2015 full-length last April were most certainly the former, they could not have been further from the latter.

Ekman's 'Midsummer Night's Dream' | Official Trailer www.youtube.com

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Everything Nutcracker
Artists of the Joffrey Ballet in Christopher Wheeldon's "Nutcracker." Photo by Cheryl Mann, Courtesy Joffrey.

When we go to the Nutcracker, we expect to be transported to a world that's both magical and familiar: the timeless Tchaikovsky music, the classic tale of a little girl and her Nutcracker prince, the sugary Land of Sweets. Yet when the Joffrey Ballet presented the world premiere of Christopher Wheeldon's new Nutcracker last year, audiences got a uniquely Chicagoan production that turns the original story on its head. Here, Marie is a poor Polish immigrant whose family lives in a shack on the construction grounds of Chicago's 1863 World's Columbian Exposition. The result is both daring and visually spectacular.

But a lot of work goes into making that magic look...well, magical. A new PBS documentary, Making a New American NUTCRACKER, follows the Joffrey Ballet, Wheeldon and his stellar creative team as they build the ballet from the ground up.

While the documentary is full of the kind of behind-the-scenes footage dancers love, it also reveals the important reasoning behind the revamped story. The Columbian Exposition setting was the brainchild of Joffrey artistic director Ashley Wheater, and both he and Wheeldon found the traditional Nutcracker story's message somewhat troubling. Wheeldon notes that the protagonist is typically a privileged, wealthy child. "And then she falls asleep and dreams of more," says Wheeldon. "More candy, more entertainment."

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In honor of Valentine’s Day, we’re taking a quick look at some of our favorite dancing couples. Stay tuned for an exclusive set of interviews on V-Day!

First, we featured Pacific Northwest Ballet power couple Lindsi Dec and Karel Cruz. Next up: The Joffrey Ballet's Jeraldine Mendoza and Dylan Gutierrez!

If their respective Instagram accounts are any indication, Gutierrez and Mendoza love style as much as they love ballet. They serve some serious fashion inspiration, along with lovely dance photos and videos—and adorable pictures of their dog.

Mendoza has danced numerous featured roles with The Joffrey (we spoke to her about her debut as Nikiya, in La Bayadère, in 2013) and Gutierrez also frequently dances leading roles.

Watch the two of them combine fashion and technique in this video from The Joffrey!

 

For more news on all things ballet, don’t miss a single issue.

 

Ballet Careers
Boston Ballet principal Ashley Ellis with Eris Nezha in Mikko Nissinen's Swan Lake. Photo by Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy Boston Ballet.

Dancers are arguably harder on themselves than any other performing artists. And because their instruments are their bodies, that self-scrutiny can become ruthlessly personal. By definition, classical ballet requires adherence to a strict lexicon of rules dictating turnout, elongated lines, balance, ballon, coordination and musicality. Straying from that ideal can lead to a charge of flawed dancing, of not living up to classical perfection. Pointe asked five professional dancers to elaborate on what they regard as their own “imperfections"—physical, technical, psychological or artistic limitations they have overcome to achieve success in their careers. In some cases, they're still working on those problem areas. In others, they have embraced their quirks and learned how to work with them. For most, their imperfections have become blessings in disguise. Without those challenges, they might not have become the dedicated, singular artists they are today.

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Jeraldine Mendoza has had quite the first season at The Joffrey—and it just got better. The 20-year-old dancer was chosen as the first performing artist in Chicago to win a grant from the Leonore Annenberg Fellowship Fund in the Performing and Visual Arts. The award comes with $50,000 and a load of prestige.

 

"I'm really, really honored," says Mendoza, noting that it feels especially rewarding since she was nominated for the prize by Joffrey artistic diretor Ashley Wheater and executive director Chistopher Clinton Conway. The company seems eager to tap her talent: She was cast as Queen of the Dryads in the Joffrey's new Don Quixote by Yuri Possokhov, she performed one pas de deux in Edward Liang's Age of Innocence and another in Wayne McGregor's Infra. ("It was amazing to work with Wayne," she says. "He moves like this insane creature; when he demonstrates, it's like he has no bones in his body. And he talks really fast, but somehow never mumbles and always makes sense!")

 

Mendoza has already developed a plan for what she's going to do with the grant. After The Joffrey's season ends in a couple of weeks, she'll head home to San Francisco to train with her former teacher, Galina Alexandrova at City Ballet School. From there, she'll fly to her old stomping grounds in Moscow to take class at the Bolshoi, where she also studied, then hop on a train to St. Petersburg. Her last stop will be London, specifically the Freed store. "I'm going to have them customize a pointe shoe for me," she explains. "I haven't yet found a shoe that fits like a glove. When I point my foot, the knuckles of my toes stick out so it looks like I'm going over even when I'm not. I want something with a harder box, something that accentuates my arch." It seems Mendoza will also have quite the off-season this year.

   

This interview originally appeared in the October 16 Pointe e-newsletter. To sign up for the newsletter, click here.

This month, the Joffrey Ballet presents Stanton Welch's production of La Bayadère for the first time. Pointe's e-news spoke with 22-year-old Jeraldine Mendoza, who will make her debut as Nikiya this Saturday, about learning the ballet.

When did you find out you'd been cast as Nikiya?
Actually, toward the end of last season, my director, Ashley Wheater, was saying things like, "You'd better work on those bourrées--there are a lot of bourrées in Bayadère!" He kept dropping little hints that I'd be doing something big in the ballet.

You trained at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy in Moscow, and this is a ballet with a strong Russian tradition.
I've seen the Bolshoi do Bayadère, and I've tried to incorporate not only their dancers' precision, but also the passion they put into their acting. I'm constantly looking at videos on YouTube, especially of Svetlana Zakharova, my favorite Nikiya. In school, we also learned the various variations from the Kingdom of the Shades, so I'm very familiar with the ballet, which definitely helps.

How different is Stanton Welch's version from the Russian classic?

His third act is more traditional, Russian-style ballet, but he really puts his mark on the first act, especially the choreography for the temple dancers and Nikiya and Solor's first pas de deux. There are a lot of tricks--it's really technical. There are also real snakes, although fortunately I don't have to deal with them! There's a snake handler who comes on--it's really cool. Actually, the snakes are very friendly. We've had fun with the snakes.

You joined the Joffrey just a couple of years ago, and have already had several featured roles. How have you dealt with the pressure?
Honestly, I have no idea! I do tend to keep to myself on big performance days, because I get extremely nervous before the show. When I'm onstage, though, it all goes away. It's just the first five steps on that are bad--once I'm out there, I'm much more comfortable.

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