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Joffrey Ballet pays rare visit to New York’s Lincoln Center

The Joffrey Ballet's Christine Rocas dances the role of Juliet in Krzysztof Pastor's version of "Romeo and Juliet," to be performed by the company at New York's Lincoln Center. (Photo: Cheryl Mann)

Think of it as the return of the phoenix, that mythical bird of great beauty renowned for rising from its ashes — reborn out of hope, idealism and (in this case at least) tremendously hard work.

As the Joffrey Ballet embarks on its first major engagement in New York (March 29 – April 1 at Lincoln Center’s David H. Koch Theater) in nearly two decades — with six performances by several different casts of Krzysztof Pastor’s supremely modern, cinematic version of “Romeo and Juliet,” plus a mixed-bill gala evening March 30 — it promises to stir up many memories. Even more importantly, it will serve as evidence of a stunning transformation that few if any major ballet companies have ever managed to finesse.

Although the Joffrey Ballet has made its home in Chicago since 1995, for nearly four decades before that it was a New York-based company — the youngest and (according to its co-founders Robert Joffrey and Gerald Arpino) the most “American” of the three troupes to share the scene in that dance mecca where George Balanchine’s New York City Ballet, and the often star-studded American Ballet Theatre, ruled the roost.

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During the 1960s and ’70s, the Joffrey became the hottest, hippest company on the block, drawing on the era’s rock music and multimedia innovations (and earning a rare cover on Time magazine in the process), while at the same time reviving some of the greatest classics of the Diaghilev era, as well as ballets by Kurt Jooss and Sir Frederick Ashton. But, after years of trying to survive on precarious financial ground, and forever competing for funding in a crowded field, a strategic decision was made to relocate in what was widely viewed as an unusually risky yet necessary move.

To be sure there were some decidedly rocky early years in Chicago. But along with the establishment of a permanent home in the heart of the Loop, with the arrival of Ashley Wheater as artistic director of the company in 2007 and his development of an audaciously contemporary but classically rooted repertoire, and with carefully managed touring engagements (from Washington, D.C.’s Kennedy Center to California, Florida and beyond), the company has cultivated an increasingly large and loyal audience in this city and once again turned itself into a world-class company.

Ashley Wheater, artistic director of the Joffrey Ballet. (Photo David Allen)

“My first priority when I arrived in Chicago was to build the company here before we did anything else,” said Wheater. “We were kept alive by many good people in this city, and now, to return to New York, feels like a wonderful story — a life journey. I believe the Joffrey is at a really good place — an ensemble with great dancers who also are great artists. This production of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ — which captivated audiences here in 2014, and then again when we revived it last fall — is a wonderful showcase for us. And with all that is going on politically in Europe right now, this version of the story, set against three different periods in 20th century Italian history, really hits you in the gut. Hopefully, its message that there is always love, even amidst conflict, is something we can learn from.”

Rory Hohenstein and Christine Rocas star in the Joffrey Ballet production of Krzysztof Pastor’s “Romeo and Juliet,” to be performed at New York’s Lincoln Center. (Photo: Cheryl Mann)

Of course touring to New York is an exceptionally expensive proposition, so along with everything else, in order for this visit to happen the financial pieces of the puzzle had to fall into place along with the artistry. And so they did, in an ideal way. Thanks to an invitation from the New York-based Joyce Theater Foundation, the company will be dancing at the David H. Koch Theater with its expenses (roughly $2 million) paid in full.

According to Linda Shelton, executive director and a trustee of the foundation (who also served as general manager of the Joffrey before it moved to Chicago), the Joyce began programming dance at the Koch Theater in 2012, following the demise of the New York City Opera, which had long been in residence there.

“We’ve hosted the Royal Ballet, the National Ballet of Canada, Miami City Ballet, the Nederlands Dance Theatre and others, and the Joffrey has been on our list for a while,” said Shelton. “We take all the risk, from salaries, to airfare, to the trucking of the set, even though we know ticket sales alone will not meet the cost.” (The foundation also is bringing the Chicago Philharmonic Orchestra — the Joffrey’s invaluable partner — to play the Prokofiev score. And ironically that ends up costing less than if the company were to hire New York musicians.)

Aside from the international competition that earned her a contract with the Joffrey Ballet back in 2005, this will be the first time the Joffrey’s Christine Rocas will perform in New York, although she is familiar with the city because her boyfriend, a classical violinist, lives there. Rocas, who has left an indelible mark on the role of Juliet, will dance it on opening night.

“The first time I danced Juliet felt like a real turning point in my career,” said Rocas. ” I was honored to be chosen, and I welcomed the challenge. I also was so happy to be partnered by Rory [Hohenstein] as Romeo, because we dance in a similar way, we have a mutual sense about what feels good, and there is really a lot of conversation and exploration happening when we dance together.”

“I’ve always seen Juliet as the strong one in the ballet, and while I love all the other classical versions that exist, what I like most is that in this version she is a real human being, and sometimes she just walks around the stage in a way that is so natural you can just allow yourself to be.”

Hohenstein danced in New York when he was a member of choreographer Christopher Wheeldon’s Morphoses company, but as he put it: “This is an even bigger deal because Romeo is my all-time favorite role and the highlight of my career. And yes, I guess New York is still considered this country’s dance mecca, and when you step onto a stage at Lincoln Center you naturally think of all the great dancers who have appeared on it. But the Joffrey is an amazing company, and it has really carried off a historical magic act.”

Joining the company in New York will be about three dozen Chicago supporters who will serve as a cheering section, and attend The Joyce Theater annual gala during which Wheater will be honored with a Joyce Theater Award, to be presented by choreographer Lar Lubovitch.

Also during the visit, the Joffrey will formally be entrusting its unusually expansive archive to the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, one of the largest dance archive collections in the world, and a destination for national and international visitors and scholars. Although some might chafe at the notion it will not remain in Chicago, it will take its place as a crucial element in American dance history at Lincoln Center. All archives will be available to the public (mostly on-site, with some available online depending on copyright laws) in about a year.

For tickets to the New York performances visit www.davidhkochtheater.com/tickets. For gala tickets (which include dinner and a program on the promenade following the performance) contact Scott Young at www.syoung@joyce.org.

Rory Hohenstein (from left), Temur Suluashvili and Victoria Jaiani in Christopher Wheeldon’s “Fool’s Paradise,” part of the Gala evening during the Joffrey Ballet’s visit to New York.(Photo: Cheryl Mann)
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