The Joffrey Ballet is on a roll. Not only will it be performing in Paris this June as part of a major festival that also will include the New York City Ballet, Miami City Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet and others, but next season it will collaborate for the first time with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
However, before all that happens there is the “Modern Masters” program, running Feb. 7-18 at the Auditorium Theatre and featuring a lineup of works by two 20th century geniuses — George Balanchine’s “The Four Temperaments” and Jerome Robbins’ “Glass Pieces” — as well as pieces by two 21st century dance-makers — “Beyond the Shore,” a world premiere by Nicolas Blanc, and “Body of Your Dreams” by Myles Thatcher — who are still building their reputations.
THE JOFFREY BALLET IN ‘MODERN MASTERS’ When: Feb. 7 – 18 Where: Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress Tickets: $34 – $159 Info: www.joffrey.org/masters
Chat with Ashley Wheater, the Joffrey’s artistic director, about the mixing and matching involved in this exceptionally demanding program and you quickly realize there is both a certain madness and a genuine method to its construction.
As Wheater observed: “The Joffrey Ballet had not even been founded when, in 1946, Balanchine, who was extremely supportive of the company in its early decades, created ‘The Four Temperaments’ for the New York City Ballet, setting it to a score for string orchestra and piano by Paul Hindemith that still sounds extraordinarily modern.” The ballet, in five parts, plays loosely on the medieval notion of the various human temperaments — melancholic, sanguinic, phlegmatic and choleric — but is never literal.
As for Robbins’ 1983 “Glass Pieces,” a work Wheater has been wanting to secure the rights to for years, it is set to the driving and repeating and changing rhythms of the music of Philip Glass (“Rubric” and “Facades” from “Glassworks,” and excerpts from his opera, “Akhnatan”), and involves the full company of 42 dancers in movement that captures the pulse of a 1980s-era metropolis.
The mounting of this Robbins ballet, a Chicago premiere, also is a way of marking the centennial of Robbins’ birth and celebrating the brilliant choreographer/director — a man of the ballet, as well as the force behind such Broadway and film classics as “West Side Story” and “Fiddler on the Roof.”
“For many years Robbins worked beside Balanchine (a master of the abstract), who was quite his opposite, probably one reason they made such a great team,” said Wheater. “Robbins would always say to his dancers, ‘Remember, you are not a dancer being a person, you are a person who dances.’ And that reminder of being an individual human being on stage really captures the honesty of his work, whether in a musical or a classical ballet. It also has been a hallmark of the Joffrey dancers from the start.”
The program’s New York City Ballet (NYCB) connection also is of crucial importance to the new work being created by Nicolas Blanc, the Joffrey’s Ballet Master and a former dancer with the San Francisco Ballet. Blanc was selected to participate in NYCB’s New York Choreographic Institute (where he created “Mothership,” which debuted at that company’s 2016 gala), but then was also given a grant that allowed him to begin work on “Beyond the Shore” in a two-week workshop last season — a genuine luxury for a choreographer.
For music Blanc turned to Mason Bates. A Grammy-nominated composer of symphonic music, and a DJ of electronic music (who often blends the two forms in his pieces), Bates is known to Chicago audiences for his recent tenure as composer-in-residence with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. And while some of the score pre-existed, Bates created a special soundscape (ambiance only) for Blanc’s prologue (titled “Netherworld”) — an introduction to the ballet that will be performed in flat shoes so the dancers appear more like real people before moving into pointe shoes and the imaginary realm of exploration. (A live orchestra will play all but that prologue.)
Blanc’s ballet is divided into six sections, and as he explained with a self-effacing laugh, “One of my goals was to integrate all my sides and moods as a choreographer — to put the entire me on the table.”
As Blanc describes its parts: “Following the prologue there is ‘Needleworld,’ that suggests being underwater or blowing like grass in the wind; ‘Broom of the System,’ with the feel of a mechanical clock of the future, or the programmed patterns of bees; ‘Aerosol Melody,’ a duet with beautiful costumes, set to Mason’s sort of lazy mambo music; ‘Gemini in the Solar Wind,’ another duet (for Victoria Jaiani and Fabrice Calmels), set to more industrial sounds that suggest NASA communications and a satellite’s circling patterns; ‘Temescal Noir,’ a jazzy quartet with a 1950s vibe; and ‘Warehouse Medicine,’ which is quite crazy and almost has the feel of a rave party.”
Finally, there is Thatcher’s piece, “Body of Your Dreams,” a satire on our obsession with fitness crazes. Hardly something the dancers of the Joffrey have to worry about.