The origin story of the Joffrey Ballet is a classic. It all began on Oct. 1, 1956 when six dancers and a stage manager set out on tour from their home in New York – packed into a station wagon, with a U-Haul trailer behind them.
Now the company of 41 dancers is just about midway through its 60th anniversary celebrations (and its 21st season as a Chicago company), and is about to stage a revival of Sir Frederick Ashton’s full-length ballet, “Cinderella,” set to a score by Prokofiev – a favorite when, in 2006, the Joffrey became the first American company to perform it. And its fortunes could well be said to have turned from the proverbial pumpkin into an elegant coach.
Not only has the Joffrey become this city’s premiere classical company – with handsome studios and a school in the heart of the Loop – but it graces the stage of the Auditorium Theatre in five engagements throughout the year, and has forged an invaluable collaboration with the Chicago Philharmonic. And this December, as the climax of its anniversary celebrations, it will debut its lavish new production of “The Nutcracker,” devised by Tony Award-winner Christopher Wheeldon.
Anyone familiar with the monumental challenges involved in keeping a ballet company alive and well – both artistically exciting and financially solvent – will understand just what an achievement this Joffrey anniversary happens to be. Its move to Chicago in 1995, under the direction of company co-founder Gerald Arpino, was a life-saver. The arrival, in 2007, of artistic director Ashley Wheater – a product of Britain’s Royal Ballet, who danced with the Joffrey in the 1980s, and then spent years with the San Francisco Ballet – has triggered a formidable rebirth of the company that is its own tale of transformation.
JOFFREY BALLET IN ‘CINDERELLA’
When: May 11 – 22
Where: Auditorium Theater,
50 E. Congress
Tickets: $32 – $170
Info: (800) 982-2787;
Run time: 2 hours and 10 minutes
with one intermission
I chatted with Wheater recently as the company was in rehearsal for “Cinderella.” Here are excerpts from our conversation:
Q: You worked with Sir Frederick Ashton [1904-1988] at the Royal Ballet. Can you talk about that experience, and what made him so special as a choreographer?
A: I was 13 or 14 when I danced the role in the Benjamin Britten opera of “Death in Venice,” which he choreographed, and it was an amazing experience. Later I was in rehearsals with him for “The Dream,” and “Monotones II.” He was very interested in the shape the body made – the deep bend of the torso, and the beautiful coordination between a fluid upper body and the articulation of the legs and feet – and that’s one of the things dancers find hard to get these days. He also devised a huge amount of pointe work that is still a challenge, and a great way for dancers to improves themselves.
“Cinderella” also gives so many dancers a chance to be seen and we have five different Cinderellas (Victoria Jaiani, Christine Rocas, April Daly, Amanda Assucena and Jeraldine Mendoza), and five Princes (Dylan Gutierrez, Temur Suluashvili, Miguel Angel Blanco, Yoshihisa Arai and Alberto Velazquez). We also have three different casts dancing the seasonal fairies, and wonderful dancers playing the step-sisters [men in drag, always a comic highlight of this ballet].
Q: Who is the audience for this ballet, which is actually quite sophisticated, and certainly not the Disney animated version?
A: We’ve sold thousands of tickets already, and that includes lots of families. But it’s interesting, because Ashton created this ballet in England in 1948, in the years right after World War II, and I think he saw it as a metaphor for being in a very dark place and then rebuilding hope. There is a great deal that is fun in it, including the step-sisters, But the Jester is a bit macabre. And when the clock strikes midnight you will see that every layer of the cast executes something different, which I’ve always marveled at. It’s also interesting to note that Ashton created the first and third acts of the ballet with the lyrical Margot Fonteyn in mind as Cinderella. But when Fonteyn was injured, Moira Shearer took over, and he choreographed the second act with a sharpness and quickness of attack that fit her style.”
Q: What does the Joffrey’s 60th anniversary mean to you?
A: It’s a huge milestone. Over the years the company has had many different ups and downs, financial and artistic. But I think the greatest thing that happened to it was its move to Chicago, because at the time New York could no longer support three major ballet companies [New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre, plus the Joffrey]. Our audience here has really expanded, and I would say our commitment to have live music has been a major game-changer.
Q: What about touring?
A: We have to be very strategic about this, because we cannot afford to tour and lose money. During the next five years we have plans for Los Angeles, the Bay Area, Santa Barbara, and Washington, D.C., and we also have some overseas possibilities. But we have to be honest about the costs. We’ve talked about a film version of our new “Nutcracker,” which I think would really be a great gift, but many, many issues have to be dealt with to make something like that happen.
Q: Do you have any collaborations planned for Chicago, including performances that might take you beyond your home at the Auditorium?
A: Yes, there is a project with another major cultural institution in the city that can’t be announced yet.
Q: What has been the impact of having a school – the Joffrey Academy of Dance?
A: The school was part of the thinking from the moment the company moved here, and its existence is important from many angles. Along with the pre-professional program there are children’s class and youth classes in many dance disciplines. We don’t necessarily see the Academy as only an elite school or a feeder for the company. It’s really there, in part, to expose everybody to dance, and that also is the goal of our community outreach programs with which Erica Lynette Edwards and Michael Smith have been doing such great work.
Q: Do you have a wish list for the company?
A: I’d like to increase our engagement throughout Chicago. I’d like to increase the number of dancers from 41 to 44, because for the big ballets we are really pushed to the limit, even though we can use up to 10 dancers from our trainee program. I would like to experiment with other venues – for example, the way Chicago Shakespeare Theater used the Broadway Armory. And I would like to build the endowment, so that we can assure our future, always have live music and take even more artistic risks.