Since 1956 the Joffrey Ballet has made touring an art form all its own. The company’s late co-founders Robert Joffrey and Gerald Arpino sought to establish a quintessential American dance institution. They accomplished this goal by hitting the road to perform a rich array of original works in venues big and small, beyond the company’s home in New York City.
Joffrey “wanted to take dance across the country to show it could be entertaining, thought-provoking and intellectual,” said Ashley Wheater, artistic director, by phone from Chicago, now the troupe’s base. All three of these adjectives describe the Joffrey’s upcoming presentation on Tuesday by Northrop Concerts and Lectures at the Orpheum Theatre. The program features work from a trio of dance innovators: Vaslav Nijinsky, William Forsythe and Stanton Welch.
“The Joffrey has a history of being unique in style,” said dancer Anastacia Holden, also by phone from Chicago. “Arpino and Joffrey liked to push the boundaries, take a few risks and try new things.” The company was a pioneer in commissioning ballets from modern-dance choreographers like Alvin Ailey, Mark Morris and Twyla Tharp. For Wheater, who performed under Joffrey’s direction in the 1980s, this tradition of daring endures. He credits his mentor for “building a company that was so eclectic. I think it’s allowed us to show the progression of dance through the 20th century” — and into the 21st.
A dynamic repertory is but one of the Joffrey’s characteristics. Unlike other large ballet troupes it does not rank dancers as principal, soloist or corps. For Wheater this democratic approach translates into greater depth artistically and technically, with nearly two-thirds of the dancers assuming a principal role at some point. “It’s what we call an all-star, no-star company,” he said.
A Dancing Mayor
The Joffrey has enjoyed many successes including performances in over 400 cities, all 50 states and worldwide. It was the first company to tour the Soviet Union and the first to dance at the White House. Prince lent his music to a popular 1993 work (“Billboards”), and the Joffrey itself served as muse for director Robert Altman’s 2003 feature film “The Company.”
But during the 1990s the troupe fell on hard times. There wasn’t really room in the Big Apple for the Joffrey along with American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet. The company moved to Chicago in 1995 and is now the toast of the town for its performances and community-engagement programs. Hard-nosed Mayor Rahm Emanuel is one of its biggest fans — as a young man he won a scholarship to the Joffrey and now serves as honorary board chair.
Commitment to Innovation
The newest offering on the Northrop program is “Son of Chamber Symphony” by Welch, artistic director of Houston Ballet. It just had its Windy City premiere. Sid Smith of the Chicago Tribune observed, “ … this intelligent three-part piece is a steely but imaginative take on John Adams’ score.”
In Minneapolis, the music will be performed live by the University of Minnesota Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Mark Russell Smith. Drawing upon the relentless spirit of deconstruction in Adams’ composition, Welch begins with the ballet in its classical form (“tutus and structure, we’re accustomed to that,” he said by phone from Chicago). But instead of taking the expected next steps (literally and figuratively) Welch said he ends up “diverging from the path” in terms of shape, emphasis and flow of movement.
Forsythe’s 1987 work “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated” takes a similar tack when it comes to rethinking traditions. “ ‘Middle’ really changed what people thought about athleticism and classical ballet,” said Wheater, who added that the complex work contains 40 different themes and variations. “People think of ballet as a 19th-century idea. [Forsythe] wanted to say, ‘Look how explosive this is when you strip all the affectation away.’”
The evening will conclude spectacularly with the once controversial 1913 ballet “Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring)” with choreography after Vaslav Nijinsky (reconstructed and staged by Millicent Hodson for the Joffrey in 1987). Executing Igor Stravinsky’s rigorous score, which together with Nijinsky’s choreography sparked a riot at its Paris premiere a century ago, has proven revelatory for Smith and his music students, who will provide live accompaniment.
“It’s not just about learning the nuts and bolts of playing, but also learning context and history,” Smith said by phone. “They understand about why it is so revolutionary, so different and so earthy. The choreography is so elemental and the rhythm is so pervasive.” The unusual movement in “Rite” also tests the dancers. Usually turned out feet are turned inward. “We’re pigeon-toed, which engages a different set of muscles,” said Holden. “We’re not used to it. I get really sore. It’s a challenge to keep up for half an hour.”
All three of these works epitomize the Joffrey’s commitment to innovation and reverence for past pioneers. “For me and for many people across the country the Joffrey was the first invitation to dance,” said Wheater. “Come and see what we’re doing today.”
Caroline Palmer writes regularly about dance.