Reverence: a feeling or attitude of deep respect; a gesture indicative of deep respect; the last exercise of ballet class where dancers pay respect to the teacher. As two of Joffrey’s most-tenured dancers prepare for their final show this Sunday, reverence will be paid. Respect earned as performers, teachers, family members and friends not only from fellow dancers and staff, but audience members and the larger Chicago dance community will permeate the air of the Auditorium Theatre as Suzanne Lopez and Calvin Kitten take the stage with the Joffrey one last time. Each spent one year with The Joffrey II Dancers before joining the main company, Lopez in 1991 and Kitten following in 1992. The two have been inseparable ever since. “He and I are family for life,” says Lopez. The duo are also the last dancers to have migrated to the Windy City from New York with the company in 1995. “Moving to Chicago was the best thing to happened in my life,” Kitten states. In NYC, the company mainly toured and performed Billboards, but Kitten says moving here allowed them to dance Artistic Director Gerald Arpino’s choreography and “have more of a home”. A home with a surrogate family, friends and love. Both met their husbands/partners while with the Joffrey. Lopez married Joffrey Master Carpenter Keith Prisco in 2005 and now has two little girls. Kitten will be joining his long-time partner Michael Andrew Currey, current Director of Production for Ballet West in Salt Lake City.
For 19 and 20 seasons respectively, Kitten and Lopez have been synonymous with Joffrey lending their expansive creative energy and talents. Kitten, known for his impish charm, incredible speed and levity in his jumps is arguably most famous for his role in The Nutcracker as Fritz/Snow Prince (you may have seen his image as Snow Prince flying high over the city’s many billboards for years), but he credits the title role in Prodigal Son (for which he won one of his two Ruth Page Awards) as a turning point in his career. He also was featured on the cover of Dance Magazine in 2001. Lopez, with her precise, consistent technique, sprightly pointe work and effortless beauty is a joy to watch. There is a sparkle in her eyes when she dances that lets you know she truly loves what she is doing and a calmness in her confidence that betrays her talent. In other words, she makes everything look easy.
Here are some highlights and memories of their years with Joffrey.
RB: What were some of your favorite roles? Where there any roles you wanted to dance, but didn’t have the chance?
SL: I can actually say that I got to dance everything on my list. Some of those roles were also my favorites…Juliet, Sugar Plum, Arpino’s L’Air D’Espirit, Birthday Variations, Lilac Garden and The Moor’s Pavane. I realized a little later in my career that I really loved acting roles. They’re so much meatier and interesting to me.
CK: My over-all favorite thing to dance probably has to be Fritz/Snow Prince in The Nutcracker. It was the first thing I danced at Joffrey and was a challenge every time I did it. I also loved doing Prodigal Son. And anything Arpino. I love the energy it takes to dance. I have no regrets about roles. I have been so fulfilled and blessed in my dance and normal life. What more could you ask for?
RB: What was it like filming the Robert Altman movie The Company (2003)?
SL: That movie was a blast to film. Our wedding is featured in The Company! I have such fond memories of Robert Altman and working with him was inspiring…he was so respectful to the dancers.
RB: What was it like rehearsing and performing Billboards? Did you know what a big hit it would be?
CK: I had no clue it was going to be a hit. The process was so much fun. How could it not be…working with four great choreographers and listening to Prince music all day. It was my first year in the company and all I could think was “I am being paid for this?”.
SL: The rehearsal process was really new and exciting. It was the first (and only) time I’d ever had a full-length ballet created on me and I was given many great opportunities within that ballet. I got to travel the world with Billboards.
RB: Can you share a story or memory of Mr. A?
SL: That’s really hard to answer. These days, even the bad stories are some of my favorites because I miss him so much. We were on a bus…I think we were all singing Christmas carols. Now we all know Calvin is a phenomenal dancer, but his singing voice leaves something to be desired. My singing voice isn’t great, but [I] can certainly carry a tune. We were sitting right behind Mr. A, singing our hearts out, and Mr. A turned around and said, “Calvin, you really have a lovely voice!” — my jaw dropped to the floor.
CK: Mr. Arpino did the New York Times crossword every day and when he needed help, he would ask someone for the answer. Suzanne also does the crossword and is really quite good at them. We were on the tour bus…he must have asked Suzanne for half the answers. Then he asked out loud, “What is a five-letter word for chocolate?” I actually knew the answer and shouted out “Fudge!” Mr. Arpino said, “That’s right!” and proceeded to praise me and tell me how smart I was. Suzanne was sitting next to me. The look on her face looked like she could just kill me.
RB: What is it like deciding to leave your “family”?
CK: It was a hard decision, but I felt it was time. I always wanted to leave with people saying, “Calvin retired too soon”, not “He should have retired a few years ago”. I have done everything and more than I thought I would ever do with my career.
SL: I will miss my extended Joffrey family. I can’t imagine any other job where you make such close and personal friends.
Post Joffrey plans for both involve dance. Kitten will still be making guest appearances and teaching at Ballet West and Lopez will be working with the Gerald Arpino Foundation setting ballets and hopefully teaching. For their final performance (Sunday, May 9th), in addition to the Eclectica program, Mr. Kitten will be dancing Balachine’s Tarantella with Yumelia Garcia and Ms. Lopez will be dancing Helgi Tomasson’s Valses Poeticos with Mauro Villanueva. Bring your Kleenex, it is sure to be an emotional show.