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Joffrey explores the modern language of ballet in ‘Millennials’

Generational labels can distort reality, especially in any discussion of the arts. That’s because artists, in addition to forging the new, famously draw on history, even as they often deconstruct it.

Yet the Joffrey Ballet, which is celebrating its 60th anniversary this season, has dubbed its brief but hugely ambitious Fall engagement at the Auditorium Theatre “Millennials.” And that umbrella title for works by Myles Thatcher, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa and Christopher Wheeldon certainly carries meaning, as artistic director Ashley Wheater continues to foster new works created in “a modern ballet idiom.”

The Joffrey Ballet: ‘Millennials’

When: Sept. 16-20

Where: Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress

Tickets: $32 – $155

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

To go strictly by the numbers: Millennial is the term used to describe those who reached young adulthood around the year 2000, and are now hovering around age 30. That age parameter certainly applies to most of the dancers in the Joffrey, as well as to the decidedly boyish Thatcher, 25, a member of the San Francisco Ballet who has simultaneously begun earning a reputation as a choreographer.

But both Ochoa (whose full-length work for the Scottish Ballet, “A Streetcar Named Desire,” wowed Chicago audiences this past season), and Wheeldon (the Tony Award-winning director-choreographer of Broadway’s “An American in Paris,” whose new “Nutcracker” for the Joffrey will debut in 2016), are in their early forties. It hardly matters. All three are devoted to innovation and to propelling classical ballet in new directions.

Choreographer Christopher Wheeldon's "Fool's Paradise" will part of the Joffrey Ballet's Millennials program. (Photo: .....)

Choreographer Christopher Wheeldon’s “Fool’s Paradise” will part of the Joffrey Ballet’s Millennials program. (Photo: Courtesy of the Joffrey Ballet)

 “Millennials” will feature two world premieres: Thatcher’s “The Passengers,” set to parts of minimalist pioneer Steve Reich’s “The Four Sections” and “Triple Quartet,” and Ochoa’s “Mammatus” (Latin for “Mammary Cloud”), an abstract work for 20 dancers set to “Weather One,” by composer Michael Gordon (a co-founder of Bang on a Can). Also on the program will be the company debut of Wheeldon’s “Fool’s Paradise,” an abstract ballet for nine dancers created for his former company, Morphoses. Set to a score by British composer Joby Talbot, it is, as Wheater describes it, “beautifully painful and emotionally intense, with the dancers’ bodies forming a series of living sculptures while shimmering petals shower the stage.”

An assortment of vintage suitcases are the crucial props in “The Passengers,” in which the dancers move in and out of a train station.

“I’ve been doing a lot of traveling in the past year or so — to Geneva, Munich, Italy, New York,” said Thatcher, a recipient of the Rolex Mentor and Protege Arts Initiative award that enabled him to spend a year following a choreographic master (Alexei Ratmansky, resident choreographer for American Ballet Theatre). “I knew ‘The Passengers’ would be a complex piece, and I had to find the music first, so when the Reich came up on my iPod shuffle it felt right. I also knew I wanted it to have a throwback quality to 1940s and ’50s noir style, with definitive relationships that weren’t gimmicky.”

Choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, whose is creating a new work, "Mammatus," for the Joffrey Ballet's Millennials program. (Photo: Bill H Photography)

Choreographer Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, whose is creating a new work, “Mammatus,” for the Joffrey Ballet’s Millennials program. (Photo: Bill H Photography)

One of the first things Thatcher did was to head to California’s Alameda Point Antiques market, where he found just the right luggage pieces, which he shipped to Chicago and had reinforced for stage use.

“Traveling gives you time for self-reflection and people-watching, and sitting in an airport you often hear things about people’s tangled lives,” said Thatcher. “This piece is full of little blips like that, although it’s set in post-World War II America, when there were still housewives, and everything was suppressed.”

Ochoa, a cloud watcher, thought the breast-shaped cloud called Mammatus would be “a fitting name for a work by a female choreographer.” And, as she explained: “I’m fascinated by the force and drive of nature which I find chaotic, organic and powerful, and which makes humans seem very small in comparison. The music I’m using refers to weather, and I wanted to explore what happens in the air. So I’ve used my dancers as birdlike creatures who are both on that cloud or under a tree, with hi-tech LED lights suggesting tree branches and lightning.”

Although she was unfamiliar with the Joffrey Ballet when she arrived in Chicago, having seen them only in a couple of classes last season, Ochoa said: “I love how diverse they are, and how they represent our society. It has been great to discover them.”

A rendering of the set for "Mammatus," Annabelle Lopez Ochoa's new work for the Joffrey Ballet. (Photo: ......)

Set design for Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s world premiere of “Mammatus”. (Photo: Courtesy of “Mammatus” set designer Dieuweke van Reij)