From the moment he arrived at the Joffrey Ballet in 2007, artistic director Ashley Wheater began pursuing a multifaceted but interconnected mission. His goal was to challenge and inspire his dancers by having new works created on them, and to have existing contemporary pieces set on them, all the while building a repertoire of narrative and abstract works that would showcase their classical technique while also capturing the style and temper of the moment.
Wheater has presented the work of such choreographers as Christopher Wheeldon, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, Justin Peck, Alexander Ekman, Stanton Welch, James Kudelka and others. Now, with “Bold Moves,” the company’s winter season program of three works, he has tapped British choreographer Ashley Page, who was long associated with London’s Royal Ballet, served as artistic director of the Scottish Ballet, and is now a busy independent dance-maker.
Page’s world-premiere piece, “Tipping Point” — set to “Concentric Paths,” a fiendishly difficult violin concerto by contemporary British composer Thomas Ades — will be the program’s centerpiece, with the music played live by the Chicago Philharmonic.
Framing this new work will be a remount of the European classic, “Forgotten Land,” Jiri Kylian’s haunting 1981 work, not danced by the Joffrey since 2012. Set to the music of Benjamin Britten, it captures the sense of memory and loss among women in a seaside village. Closing the program will be “RAkU,” a 2011 work by San Francisco Ballet’s resident choreographer Yuri Possokhov, first danced by the Joffrey in 2014. A highly theatrical, multi-media ballet, it is set to music by Shinji Eshima and based on the tale of a Japanese emperor, his wife and a jealous monk driven mad by obsessive love.
JOFFREY BALLET IN “BOLD MOVES”
When: Feb. 10-21
Where: Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress
Tickets: $32 – $155
“‘Tipping Point’ is for 12 dancers, with two couples in the long central section, plus a trio comprised of two men and one woman, and three additional women and two men,” said Page, who was still putting the finishing touches on the piece just a week before its debut.
As a student at the Royal Ballet School, Page was about four years ahead of Wheater. And while he knew of him later as a dancer, and then as Joffrey’s artistic director, it wasn’t until the two men met a couple of years ago at the San Francisco Ballet, that Wheater issued an invitation to make a work for the Joffrey.
“I understand completely what he wants for the company because in many ways it is similar to what my goals were for the Scottish Ballet,” said Page. “It’s about the development of the dancers through the growth of the repertoire. And while we both are grounded in the classics, the idea is to find new ways to use both ballet and contemporary dance techniques. I worked with such 20th century British masters as Frederick Ashton and Kenneth MacMillan at the Royal. And looking back, I also realize how lucky I was to have been exposed to the ‘Golden Age’ of contemporary dance that developed in London in the 1980s, with influences ranging from Merce Cunningham to Glen Tetley and Richard Alston.”
Page credits his longtime collaborator, designer Jon Morrell, with coming up with the title of “Tipping Point,” as well as the set — “a series of five panels that might be seen either as the face of a great rock with a crack in it, or as dirty, broken glass.”
“The relationships suggested in the piece also are somewhat ambiguous,” Page said. “And because the music can be so unsettling … the dancers have an uneasy alliance, too. One of the couples is aggressive, while the other is more lyrical. And there is a controlling element in the two men in the central section. But I don’t explain too much to the dancers because, as the work takes shape, I like them to remain open to all the possibilities, rather than nailing down an interpretation.”
“I did come across a fantastic piece of writing describing Ades’ score when I began thinking about my ballet,” said Page. “It described it as ‘unstable sheets of harmony.’ And particularly in the second movement I think you can almost hear the tectonic plates shifting — rock grinding against rock, as if the earth ‘s core were groaning. It’s that elemental, organic tension that inspired me.”
As for Page’s overall impression of the Joffrey: “It’s interesting these days in the ballet world, because aside from a few companies — in Paris, Denmark, Russia — the idea of a single school feeding dancers into the company is no longer the case. There is far more migration, companies tend to be very international, and there is a globalization of the repertoire, too. This is true of the Joffrey, but what has impressed me is that because they’ve had a lot of new work made on them they are not afraid. They have very strong classical skills, but they’re brave enough to be open to other things. They work very quickly. And they have strong personalities that bring with it a kind of glamor I find very sexy and attractive.”