On the heels of its first visit to New York in more than two decades last month, the Joffrey Ballet is returning to its home stage, the Auditorium Theatre, with a mixed bill dubbed “Global Visionaries.”
THE JOFFREY BALLET IN ‘GLOBAL VISIONARIES’
When: April 26-May 7
Where: Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress
Tickets: $34 – $159
The program will feature the work of three contemporary dance-makers with international roots.
“The Miraculous Mandarin,” the tale of a girl forced to act as a decoy by thugs, who lures a wealthy mandarin to his tragic fate, is set to the music of Bela Bartok and was created for the Joffrey and the Cleveland Orchestra by Russian-bred Yuri Possokhov, choreographer in residence with the San Francisco Ballet. Receiving its world premiere will be “Episode 47,” by the Swedish choreographer and theatrical joker Alexander Ekman, with a soundtrack that ranges from the Brad Mehldau Trio’s bluesy interpretation of Buddy Johnson’s “Since I Fell for You,” to experimental rock band Django Django’s psychedelic dance hit, “First Light,” Tiga’s pop hit “Shoes” and Moby’s “LA5.” And finally there will be a reprise of “Mammatus,” the stunning work evocative of cloud formations and birds that was created by the half-Colombian and half-Belgian choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, and that left such a vivid impression when the Joffrey debuted it in 2015.
But another intriguing story will be playing itself out during this Spring engagement, too, as Anastacia Holden — who became an apprentice with the Joffrey in 2003 and a full company member in 2005, and has been one of the troupe’s most versatile, musical and technically dynamic dancers ever since — will be taking her final bow.
Though just 31, and dancing at the top of her game, Holden has decided to “open a new chapter” in her life and devote her formidable energy and passion to Embarc, a citywide education project founded in 2010 that she has helped build alongside Imran Khan (who also happens to be her fiance) and January Miller, both of whom worked as teachers at West Englewood’s Harper High School, a place notorious for gangs, drugs, violence and poverty.
“When the project started it was just the three of us, and I was the one who signed on to do the nitty gritty — raising money, writing grant proposals and learning accounting so I could do the payroll,” said Holden, who all the while maintained an often punishing schedule of classes, rehearsals and performances with the Joffrey.
Beginning as a non-profit pilot project with 100 students, Embarc quickly took off and has grown into a widely in-demand social and cultural education program that now serves 14 high schools in West Englewood, Roseland, Portage Park, Douglas, New City, Rogers Park, North Lawndale, East Garfield Park, Uptown and University Village. Creating programming for the “extra hours” of the school day mandated in recent years, it took students — many with incarcerated parents, impoverished living conditions and lists of murdered friends — to journeys all across the city, exposing them to theaters, museums, restaurants, universities, businesses, activities like high-ropes courses and even visits to Lake Michigan, which many had never seen. Grades improved notably. And since then, Khan and Miller have left the classroom to lead this intensive three-year experiential education “intervention” program whose daily curriculum focuses on college and career planning that Chicago Public School teachers implement in their schools.
“I know how important the arts are in terms of inspiring people to be better in life,” said Holden, who studied piano for 10 years before pursuing her dance career, and who still plays everything from Rachmaninoff to piano transcriptions of Radiohead songs at home. “Sometimes this is not visible to the artists themselves because we’re so busy creating. But with Embarc I saw how exposure to the arts really changed the lives of those we worked with. And in terms of my own career, I felt extremely lucky. I never had a serious injury, so I was able to work really hard with a lot of wonderful choreographers and dance in a lot of great pieces — from Lar Lubovitch’s ‘Othello,’ to Jiri Kylian’s ‘Forgotten Land’ and Wayne McGregor’s ‘INFRA.’ I really couldn’t have asked for more, and I had a good time every step of the way. Plus I started my career very young, and have danced so much, that I don’t feel as if I’m walking away. And this will certainly not be a complete goodbye to the dance world.”
Knowing that the “Global Visionaries” program would be Holden’s last with the Joffrey, artistic director Ashley Wheater asked her what she would like to dance.
“I told him I just wanted to do the rep I would have done anyway,” said the dancer, who will perform on opening and closing nights. “It’s hard putting a whole career into one performance, so I just wanted to do things as I’d always done them. I will be dancing in the new Ekman piece as well as in [Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s] ‘Mammatus’.”
“Alexander has so many ideas, and they can seem so random until the end when you realize how much meaning there is in it all,” said Holden. “‘Episode 47’ is very theatrical, and is all about our commitment to the theater, and it definitely needs an audience to complete it. Annabelle choreographed a section of ‘Mammatus’ on me so it’s really special. And not only does it allow me to dance in collaboration with my fellow dancers, but I get to do a pas de deux with Derrick Agnoletti, who has been such a great friend to me ever since we started with the company on the very same day.”