Joffrey Ballet, American Ballet Theatre ‘kick up their heels’ for winter programs

Dancers sometimes like to escape the confines of a narrative and just show off the sheer fun and physicality of movement. And that’s exactly what two of this country’s most respected ballet companies plan to do in Chicago in the next two months.

SHARE Joffrey Ballet, American Ballet Theatre ‘kick up their heels’ for winter programs
JJoffrey Ballet artists Dara Holmes and Edson Barbosa in “The Times Are Racing.”

Joffrey Ballet artists Dara Holmes and Edson Barbosa in “The Times Are Racing.”

The central offerings for most ballet companies revolve around narrative, evening-length ballets, and it’s not hard understand why.

Many of the stories, like “The Nutcracker,” “The Sleeping Beauty” or “Anna Karenina” are familiar, and they provide a comfortable entrée into the dance world, especially for audiences who are not aficionados.

That said, dancers sometimes like to escape the confines of a narrative, kick up their heels and just show off the sheer fun and physicality of movement. And that’s exactly what two of this country’s most respected ballet companies plan to do in the next two months.

The Chicago-based Joffrey Ballet and New York-based American Ballet Theatre will present what are known in the field as mixed-repertory programs — combinations of shorter works with a variety of looks and styles.

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The Joffrey Ballet — ‘The Times Are Racing’

When: 7:30 p.m. Feb. 12, with nine additional performances through Feb. 23

Where: Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Ida B. Wells Dr.

Tickets: $35-$197

Info: joffrey.org


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American Ballet Theatre

When: 7:30 p.m. March 19 and 20; 2 and 7:30 p.m. March 21; 2 p.m. March 22

Where: Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Ida B. Wells Dr.

Tickets: $50-$130

Info: tickets.auditoriumtheatre.org


“Our audience, they love coming to a non-narrative program,” said Ashley Wheater, Joffrey’s artistic director, “where they just look at the breadth and depth of dance and enjoy it on that level without necessarily having to get stuck into a big narrative work.”

The Joffrey typically includes at least one-mixed rep program each season, and the 2019-20 offering is called “The Times Are Racing.” It will run for 10 performances Feb. 12-23 in the Auditorium Theatre, with multiple casts taking turns in the varied works.

The title is taken from that of the program’s final work by Justin Peck, one of the hottest names in dance. Resident choreographer of the New York City Ballet since 2014, he is serving as choreographer for Steven Spielberg’s remake of “West Side Story,” which is set to hit theaters in December.

Dubbed a “sneaker ballet,” because the 20 dancers will be wearing sneakers designed by Opening Ceremony, the 2017 creation is set to the final four tracks of synth-pop master Dan Deacon’s 2012 album, “America.” “It just has a powerful physicality and a drive to it that is so youthful,” Wheater said.

Also on the program will be the Midwest premieres of “Mono Lisa” and “Sofa” by Itzik Galili, an Israeli-born choreographer who is well known in Europe, as well as Christopher Wheeldon’s “Commedia” and Stephanie Martinez’s “Bliss!”

American Ballet Theatre’s Brittany DeGrofft and Aran Bell in Twyla Tharp’s “Deuce Coupe.”

American Ballet Theatre’s Brittany DeGrofft and Aran Bell in Twyla Tharp’s “Deuce Coupe.”

Rosalie O’Connor

“It’s a program of very different ideas and different styles,” Wheater said, “and it speaks to what people are creating today and talking about today. And the company seems to be really enjoying getting the program together.”

In 2018, the Auditorium Theatre and American Ballet Theatre announced a four-year partnership that began last year with the company’s presentation of “Whipped Cream,” a 2017 re-imagining of Richard Strauss’ all-but-forgotten ballet that originally debuted in 1924.

To provide contrast with what was very much a story ballet, ABT returns for five performances March 19-22, bringing a mixed-rep program, albeit one with some narrative in small doses. That decision came in part out of a desire for the two partners to “test the waters,” said Kevin McKenzie, ABT’s artistic director, and to see how such a line-up would go over with Chicago audiences.

ABT is marking its 80th anniversary this season, and the company will present three “landmark” works from its history, starting with the “Kingdom of the Shades” scene from Act II of Natalia Makarova’s 40-year-old production of Marius Petipa’s classic ballet, “La Bayadère.”

“It’s such a quintessential classical work,” McKenzie said. “There’s no competition with Joffrey. They don’t have it in their rep, so it feels like it’s a unique thing to bring and very symbolic of us as the nation’s ballet company.”

The rest of the line-up will consist of Antony Tudor’s “Jardin aux lilas (Lilac Garden),” and “Deuce Coupe” (which the Joffrey premiered at the Auditorium Theatre in 1973). The latter is an iconic work by Twyla Tharp, one of the most important American choreographers of the second half of the 20th century.

“It’s always difficult to appeal to a non-ballet audience,” McKenzie said. “You have to find a way in there — something that is going to connect with them. For the general public, I think ‘Deuce Coupe’ is the selling point, because it’s the Beach Boys, and everybody knows who they are.”

Another big draw for ABT’s performances will be the appearance of Misty Copeland, who is scheduled to appear in “Deuce Coupe” in the Thursday, Friday and Saturday evening performances. The first African American principal dancer in the company’s history, she has developed her own devoted fandom.

Kyle MacMillan is a local freelance writer.

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