Joffrey Ballet's 'All Stars' program features work of Balanchine, Robbins and Wheeldon

October 8, 2010
Chicago Sun-Times
Hedy Weiss


"All Stars." That's what the Joffrey Ballet has named its upcoming program of four major works at the Auditorium Theatre.

Ask Ashley Wheater, the Joffrey's artistic director, whether the umbrella title refers to the choreographers being showcased, or to the Joffrey dancers, and he steps deftly around the question.

"First, it's the choreographers -- George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins and Christopher Wheeldon -- who represent the artists of three successive generations who created work for the New York City Ballet," said Wheater. "But their ballets, all of which are very difficult to perform, also will serve as a great showcase for the Joffrey's up-and-coming stars. All four pieces on this program make big demands on the dancers and give them great opportunities to grow."

The triumverate of choreographers have interestingly linked careers.

Balanchine (1904-83), was the Russian-bred master of Georgian heritage who founded New York City Ballet and put an American spin on Old World classicism. Robbins (1918-98) was the American-bred choreographer who brilliantly bridged the worlds of ballet (primarily with Balanchine's company) and Broadway. And 37-year-old Wheeldon, the prolific English-born dancemaker, is a product of Britain's Royal Ballet who, in 2001 was named New York City Ballet's first resident choreographer.

"Balanchine and Robbins were immensely helpful to Robert Joffrey in the early days of the company," said Wheater. "They understood the difficulties facing a small touring ensemble, as the Joffrey was then, and they saw in Bob a man who was a real stickler about training and technique, as they were. Similarly, Christopher [Wheeldon] has been incredibly supportive of me since I came to the Joffrey in 2007 -- giving us the right to perform his work at the rates we could afford. So in a way, this program also is an expression of gratitude to those artists who have supported the Joffrey through many different times."

The challenging centerpiece on the fall program is Balanchine's masterful "Stravinsky Violin Concerto," which pays homage to the choreographer's great friend, composer Igor Stravinsky. Initially devised in 1941 for the Ballet Russe, it was fully re-envisioned (and stripped of elaborate costuming in favor of black-and-white practice clothes) for the legendary 1972 Stravinsky Festival in New York.

The ballet's opening sequences are comprised of various quintets, and there is a finale that draws on Georgian folk dance motifs that hint at Balanchine's heritage. But at the center of the work are two contrasting pas de deux (or "arias" as Wheater refers to them) that are the principal focus of attention.

"There is so much for the dancers to understand and digest in this work," said Wheater. "The duets especially demand such a breadth of movement. And you really have to feel good about yourself to dance them, to hold the stage without any costuming or sets to hide behind, and to capture Balanchine's great musicality. It's a huge learning curve, especially if you haven't been steeped in the Balanchine style."

Crucial to the learning process has been the fact that "Violin Concerto" is being staged for the Joffrey by two former New York City Ballet stars, who worked directly with Balanchine -- Bart Cook, who danced in the 1972 performances, and his wife, Maria Calegari.

"Balanchine's choreography is so tricky, and he was such an exacting master," said Calegari. "It is amazing to see the nuances and details he was able to fit into a single phrase. And the steps must be presented in a very particular way, with great speed and a special use of the upper body. You have to understand the amount of energy to be used -- or not used -- at any given moment."

Virtuosic technique and musical flair also will be on display in Balanchine's "Tarantella," a duet created in 1964 and inspired by the wild Italian folk dance. Set to the music of Louis Moreau Gottschalk (orchestrated by Hershy Kay), it requires bravura footwork done at rapidfire speed.

Jerome Robbins' extraordinary ability to turn movement and gesture into something close to language will be on display in "The Concert (or The Perils of Everybody)," a great comic ballet created in 1956, just as he was working on "West Side Story." Set to Chopin, the piece considers how people often drift off into very personal daydreams and loopy fantasies when listening to music.

"It is so difficult to make a really good comic ballet," said Wheater. "But Robbins was a genius. And I think the dancers have learned that comedy is not about doing more, but about doing just what is called for, with an absolute marriage between every single gesture and the musical beat."

Finally, Wheeldon, the youngest "star" on the Joffrey bill, will be represented by "After the Rain," set to the music of Arvo Part. The ballet, which involves some supremely intricate and difficult partnering, begins with three couples whose movements sometimes mirror each other. The work's second section is an extended pas de deux for one couple that explores the shifting moods of their relationship.

Wheater hopes to present more of Wheeldon's work in the future, including, possibly, the "Alice in Wonderland" he is now creating for the Royal Ballet.