Joffrey Ballet spinning “Stories in Motion”

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The Joffrey Ballet’s Christine Rocas and Miguel Blanco in the Chicago premiere of Yuri Possokhov’s “RAkU,” part of the “Stories in Motion” program. (Photo: Cheryl Mann)

THE JOFFREY BALLET IN “STORIES IN MOTION”

± Sept. 18-21

± Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress

± Tickets: $32 – $155

± Info: (800) 982-2787; http://www.ticketmaster.com

Like all art forms, ballet styles and audience tastes tend to move in cycles. The passion for traditional, full-length story ballets like “Giselle,” “Sleeping Beauty” and “Swan Lake” reigned supreme for decades. Then came the Diaghilev era in the early decades of the 20th century, and such revolutionary works as Nijinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” — a work that still told a story, but did so with a daring new dance language.

Kurt Jooss, choreographer of “The Green Table,” drew on German Expressionist modern dance as much as ballet for his storytelling. George Balanchine often lifted the classical patterns of 19th century ballet and turned them into 20th century abstractions. And recent post-modernists like William Forsythe and Wayne MacGregor took the whole process right to the edge of the precipice, creating works that demanded ballet technique but easily could be categorized as contemporary dance in pointe shoes.

During the course of its history, the Joffrey Ballet has embraced the styles of most of these choreographers, and its dancers have always displayed a flair for the essential drama in whatever they performed. But Ashley Wheater, the company’s artistic director, is partial to the power of storytelling. And the company’s special one-weekend program, “Stories in Motion” — running Sept. 18-21 at the Auditorium Theatre as a teaser for its 2014-2015 season, which marks its 20th anniversary of calling Chicago home — is designed to showcase the full spectrum of narrative dance styles. The lineup might well be viewed as a trio of masterful “short stories” that suggest “how movement can be as expressive and nuanced as the spoken or written word.”

First comes a revival of “The Prodigal Son,” Balanchine’s masterwork, inspired by the biblical tale, set to the music of Prokofiev, and created for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in 1929. It will be followed by “Lilac Garden,” Antony Tudor’s emotionally taut Edwardian era tale, created in 1936, and set to music by Ernest Chausson. It spins the story of a young woman who is betrothed to a man she does not want to marry, yet is unable to break free of the conventions of her society. And finally there is “RAkU,” created in 2011 by Yuri Possokhov, San Francisco Ballet’s resident choreographer. Set to music by Shinji Eshima, this tale of a Japanese emperor and his beloved princess who are torn apart by war, and by the schemes of a Buddhist monk driven mad by obsessive love, features a modernist costume and set design. Moving screens and projections suggest the burning of the Kyoto Temple of the Golden Pavilion.

“For a long time now, so much of ballet has been abstract,” said Wheater. “And while this has given us some beautiful movement, and stunning lighting effects, I think people might want something more to engage in. There is a certain sense of humanity that emerges through the telling of a story. And I think dancers often discover things in themselves when they portray characters in ballets. Sometimes it’s unexpected, and you just see the person blossom in the process.”

For “The Prodigal Son,” the Joffrey dancers had the added advantage of being coached by Edward Villella, the legendary star of the New York City Ballet, who made the title role one of his trademarks, and was coached in it by Balanchine himself. (Think one degree of separation from the source.) In a recent interview, Villella said Balanchine told him the key to the stylized movement in the piece could be found in the figures in Russian icons.

Legendary dancer Edward Villella (right) coaches Joffrey Ballet dancer Olgucan Borova in Balanchine’s “Prodigal Son” (Photo: Herbert Migdoll)

“One of the things Eddie [Villella] kept reminding us about was to trust the simplicity of the movement,” said Wheater, who will make a rare return to the stage, playing the father at all performances. “He said to remember that the son here is no ballet prince, but an ordinary human being.”

“The more you see ‘Prodigal,’ the more you realize what an avant-garde work it was for its time, and how modern it still looks,” said Wheater. “‘Lilac Garden’ is very different — the most lyrical, subtle sort of theater. And ‘RAkU,” a work of bold physical theater, offers yet another great contrast.”

The “Stories in Motion” program also is a reminder that the Joffrey is working to match a $500,000 challenge grant from the Rudolf Nureyev Dance Foundation — a grant designed to create an endowment (the first in the company’s history) for the funding of the creation, production and performance of full-length story ballets. Another example of the sort of work such an endowment could fund is coming up soon, as the Joffrey prepares for its first ever production of “Swan Lake” (Oct. 15-26), in a fully reimagined version by Christopher Wheeldon.


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