ABT Entertains Chicago

Stella Abrera and Calvin Royal III in "Bach Partiita". Photo by Gene Shiavone.

The American Ballet Theatre (ABT) has one more performance left this weekend at the Auditorium Theatre. Download the Bears app to keep track of the game and head to the theater to see this All-American Celebration featuring Back Partita and Sinatra Suite by Twyla Tharp, Some Assembly Required by Clark Tippet and Fancy Free by Jerome Robbins.

At first, I was curious why they chose to bring this program considering Chicago audiences recently saw Robbins’ Fancy Free (Stars of the American Ballet) and Nine Sinatra Songs (The Joffrey Ballet) a few weeks ago at the Chicago Dancing Festival, but witnessing the audience reaction to these works left no doubt they made the right choice. Opening with the piquantly performed Bach Partita set the tone, showing off the talent and breadth of the massive company right out of the gate…or curtain. ABT smartly used the fame juggernaut that is Misty Copeland in promoting the performances, but Gillian Murphy was the star of this piece. Tharp’s brisk and difficult choreography was a breeze for Murphy who never missed a beat and was expertly partnered by the handsome Marcelo Gomes (who just danced the lead in Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake in Japan).

Tippet’s breezy duet danced by Sarah Lane (dance double for Natalie Portman in Black Swan) and Sterling Baca was a delightful, if too long interlude before the other Tharp piece stole the show. Sinatra Suite uses five of the nine duets from her Nine Sinatra Songs to blockbuster effect with the famous and formidable coupling of Copeland and Gomes. The audience gasped as the two entered from the wings to Sinatra’s crooning voice. Having seen this work many times over the past decades, I was not expecting anything new, but the charisma and obvious fun they were having was truly infectious and made the overdone piece seem fresh.

By now, the touring troupe had the audience in its grip and closing with Robbins’ Fancy Free, in hindsight, seems perfect. The fun dance theater piece about three young sailors on leave looking for action took the audience on a sweet ride. It was a real treat to see long-time friend of the blog Daniil Simkin (now a principal dancer) as one of the sassy sailors. Special mention goes to the Chicago Philharmonic Orchestra – always fantastic – and, in particular, violinist Charles Yang, who played brilliant solos for the first two pieces of the evening.

American Ballet Theatre performs today at 2:00 PM at the Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress Pkwy. Tickets are $34-$129, call 800.982.2787. Use code: JOFFREY for 20% off tickets. 

*Disclosure: I work for The Joffrey Ballet and the Chicago Philharmonic Orchestra is our resident orchestra. 

Throwback Thursday: Nut edition #tbt

RB in Arabian and my bestie as the Sugar Plum Fairy.

NUTCRACKER!

And so it starts…

Tomorrow is opening night of The Joffrey Ballet‘s run of The Nutcracker. Since I now work for them, if you need me, I’ll be at the Auditorium Theatre for the next month. :)

Over Thanksgiving weekend I was lucky – and thankful – to have dinner (which consisted of lots of fried things!) with two of my BFFs from back home. While catching up, we brought up one particular Nutcracker that was memorable for all the wrong reasons.

While breaking in a new brand of pointe shoes, my friend developed blisters on the back of her heels. Tech week is hard core, so those blisters soon ripped and she found herself with large, deep holes that were bleeding and raw. Obviously there was no time to heal, so she powered through – I’m not sure how – by having Lidocaine shot directly into the wounds before the perfomance. It was painful to watch. I can’t imagine how it felt. However, she danced a beautiful pas and Sugar Plum variation complete with a dazzling array of turns and a big goofy smile. She insists she has no recollection of even dancing. Good drugs, I guess, but that was her final Nutcracker. Hmm…I wonder why?

 

Joffrey Dances La Bayadère (aka Snakes at the Ballet)

Joffrey Ballet goes Bollywood in "La Bayadere". Photo by Christopher Duggan.

This Wednesday the Joffrey Ballet* begins a 10-performance run of Stanton Welch’s La Bayadère: The Temple Dancer at the Auditorium Theatre. Welch’s version, originally choreographed for Houston Ballet in 2010, whittles down the three-plus hour original tale, keeping the story of love, jealousy and revenge flowing, while adding in more dancing. He’s left the famous “Kingdom of the Shades” scene, where 26 ballerinas in white tutus enter the stage performing synchronized arabesques, in tact. Oh, and there are live snakes.

You read that right. Snakes. Real ones. Live, on stage. SNAKES! (Can someone please tell me what happens while they are on stage, because my eyes will be shut as I silently shriek to myself.) Real snakes were used on a photo shoot in Houston to promote the revamp of the 19th classic. The dancers “really got into it” and ended up on the floor with 30 snakes slithering over them – ew – so Welch thought, “We have to use it!” A snake handler from The Traveling World of Reptiles (you’ll have to look up their site on your own…can’t do it) will be part of the production with four of his serpent friends.

The story follows Niiya, a temple dancer, and a love quartet with a secret love, a princess and a betrothed priest. The drama heightens with dancing gods and a little help from a hookah pipe. Solor, Nikiya’s love interest tends a broken heart by smoking opium and enters a dreamlike state. The is where the “Shades” come in. Welch describes them as “a stream of smoke coming down from heaven, where Nikiya appears in a cloud”. This scene has been seen as a stand-alone at galas around the world and is breathtaking.

Considering Welch himself has never performed the ballet, why La Bayadère? “It’s historic and important,” said Welch when I stopped by Joffrey Tower to chat and watch rehearsal earlier this month. “It has strong women characters. There are no victims and I love that the two women fight each other.” He’s replaced a lot of the pantomime – and there was a lot – with dancing and added more dancing for the men. “It’s all dance, less mime,” Welch said. Artistic Director Ashley Wheater agrees. “It’s real dancing people, not cardboard cut outs.” Wheater is excited to have his dancers perform such a staple. “It’s strictly classical,” he said. “It’s hard…a kind of a show-us-everything-you’ve learned.”

Joffrey Ballet presents La Bayadère: The Temple Dancer at the Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress Pkwy., Wednesday, Oct. 16 – Sunday, Oct. 27. Performance times vary. Tickets are $31-$152; call 800.982.2787 or online at ticket master.com. 

*La Bayadère is the last time RB will be covering Joffrey for the blog. At the end of the month, I’m joining the Joffrey Marketing Team full-time. You can follow my coverage of them, in an official capacity, on their website, JPointe blog and on social media.

Throwback Thursday: Sleeping Beauty edition #tbt

RB as Lilac Fairy and the Fairy Court in "Sleeping Beauty".

This Throwback Thursday is in honor of the opening night – tomorrow night – of Ballet West‘s Sleeping Beauty at the Auditorium Theatre. My first full-length ballet with the Springfield Ballet Company, way back in the day, was Sleeping Beauty. I was a “maid-in-waiting” and a “lilac sylph”. It was some hard corps dancing for my first thing aside from Nutcracker and a lot of it. The hardest part was standing in “B+” for the entire Rose Adage. Good lord. Feet asleep, hips cramped…now dance!

About ten years laster, I was cast as the “Lilac Fairy” and I was ecstatic. I may have gone a little overboard (only wearing purple leos, lilac lotion and acting nice and fairy-like), but I wanted to be “in character”. During the rehearsal process, I was also falling in love with the boy I was dating. Things were good.

Tech week is always stressful transitioning from the comfortable studio setting to the “big girl” stage. Things change and you freak out. The first full dress rehearsal my crown got stuck in netting of the forest. A lovely apprentice finally freed me after I’d severely missed my cue and yelled (I’m sure with profanity) for help. Then my wand got stuck on my tutu in a series of chaine turns. But as they say, a terrible dress means a great show.

Our officiall dress rehearsal is also taped and performed with a live audience of friends and disabled persons from local area, so I consider this a “real” performance. It was also the last time to get out any kinks before “the boyfriend” was to see me dance for the first time. Ahhh! I’d had a terrible cold that I inadvertently gave to “Princess Aurora” (sorry Alicia!), so I hadn’t seen “him” all week. After warm up and photos, I decided to call and let “him” know where to pick up his tickets for the Saturday matinee and…he broke up with me..over the phone…while I was backstage…20 minutes before curtain.

This isn’t quite as dramatic as Ballet West’s Allison DeBona’s longtime boyfriend not showing up to see her dance as depicted in Breaking Pointe this season, but I was heartbroken. Since the “show must go on”, I hooked up my tutu and danced. There’s a lovely video of me nailing all my pirouettes and not smiling once. Blergh.

Ballet West Comes To Chicago (preview)

Ballet West in "Sleeping Beauty". Photo by Luke Isley.

You may have heard of Ballet West. Their artistic director Adam Sklute danced and was on the artistic staff of the Joffrey Ballet. In fact, you likely saw him dance “Herr Drosselmeyer” in The Nutcracker with flair and finesse a time or two. You may have seen them perform at the Chicago Dancing Festival once or twice, but aside from the fest, they haven’t toured in Chicago for over 20 years. Oh, the company also stars on the CW series Breaking Pointe, a reality show that follows the inner workings and lives of professional ballet dancers. If you’ve seen it, you’re obsessed. If you haven’t, you should. Aside from the glitz and glam of t.v. stardom, Ballet West begins their 50th anniversary season – a big deal – on tour. First stop: Chicago.

This weekend at the Auditorium Theatre, Ballet West brings two shows to town and they couldn’t be more different. Friday and Saturday, Oct. 4-5 they perform Sklute’s “reconceived” Sleeping Beauty and on Sunday, Oct. 6, they perform a repertory program that includes Val Caniparoli’s The Lottery based on the short story by Shirley Jackson. “Both programs show off the versatility of my dancers and the diversity of our repertoire,” Sklute said. “I hope that Chicago enjoys it. It’s an important engagement for us. We’re very honored and proud to come.”

Sklute, who recently married his partner of 20 years (yay!), spoke candidly over the phone about the tour, the anniversary, coming back to Chicago and, of course, Breaking Pointe. (Disclosure: Adam and I have known each other since we both worked on staff at Joffrey “x” number of years ago.)

What does it mean to you to come back to Chicago with your own company and perform on your former home stage at the Auditorium?

This is a very, very personal experience for me. For so many years I was at the Joffrey and the Auditorium was my home theater. To be going to Chicago and performing with my company for so many people that I’ve known and loved for so many years is an intense experience. I started thinking at Dance For Life…Oh my God, we’re going to be here. Ballet West is going to be here. I won’t deny that’s it’s a little overwhelming. The feelings are so big. I’m really proud of Ballet West right now. I’m really excited for my company to be seen now, because we’re very different from the great Chicago companies and a lot of the companies that have toured to Chicago, so we’re ready to bring something unique, which is exciting for me.

I can’t remember the last time anybody did Sleeping Beauty here.

That was totally a request of Brett Batterson [Executive Director of the Auditorium Theatre]. When we first started talking, he thought that was perfect. I won’t deny that ‘Sleeping Beauty’ is a little nervewracking for me. Almost more than the rep show, ‘Sleeping Beauty’ is the one that’s freaking me out. There’s such a standard to it. It requires absolute classical purity. While I’m proud of our dancers, there’s the weight of history on our shoulders. Chicago saw Margot Fonteyn dance the role of Aurora, for gosh sakes. This is my production of ‘Sleeping Beauty’. I’ve reconceived it and restaged it with the choreography of the late Mark Goldweber. In a way, it’s also my tribute to Mark, because Mark was such a part of our team that worked under Jerry Arpino when Joffrey was redefining itself in Chicago, so I love that I can bring something that shows Mark’s work. He did a lot with the children in this production and I love that we’re using so many local children to show off the ensemble. All in all, it’s pretty intense and wonderful.

What did you change in Sleeping Beauty?

I edited it down. We’re in a different era now, a different age and people have different attention spans. I tried to honor the story, honor the choreography of Petipa, the concept and Tchaikovsky’s music, but make it more palatable for a 21st century audience. I did a lot to bring out the drama in different ways, to make it an allegory. It’s not something unique, but the way I did it, I think, is unique. The fairies are now the fairy of joy, happiness, beauty, temperament and kindness, wisdom and ‘Carabosse’, the evil fairy, becomes the fairy of jealousy. The princes, the suitors in the Rose Adage are the Princes of the North, South, East and West. The Prince that’s known as ‘Florimund’ is now ‘Prince Desire’. She’s awakened by the kiss of desire at the age of 16, or 116 as the case may be. We tightened up the action. Things to sort of make it move along.

Tell me about the rep show.

I’m really excited about. I think that the company looks smashing. We have the world premiere of ‘Pas de Quatre’ by my resident choreographer Nicolo Fonte and the pas from ‘Diamonds’. ‘The Lottery’, based on Shirley Jackson’s short story. It’s a really intense story. The person that gets killed dances a really long, complicated solo and it’s a cast of 14, so everyone in the cast has to be ready to go for any given night. They don’t know if they will have to dance the long, hard solo at the end of the night or not. It’s pretty incredible. When people are picking their “ticket”, the audience can see it. The tension is palable. It’s not just dramatic tension. They are literally wondering if they have to do it. It adds to the drama of the moment. It’s not predetermined. It happens right there on stage. The way Val has done it is so expert. Val always told us the story is kind of like “The Rite of Spring” meets “Leave it to Beaver”. In a way, it’s also our own homage to the 100th anniversary of “Rite”. [Sklute was part of Joffrey's 1987 reconstruction of Le Sacre du Printemps/The Rite of Spring.]

Let’s talk Breaking Pointe. I think it’s brilliant that you said yes to it. I’m sure people are wondering what you’re doing, but I think it brought your profile up and made fans around the world. Do you still think it was a good idea? How hard is it to cameras everywhere all the time?

 Thank you for saying that. We took a big chance. I wasn’t going to do it if the dancers said no. We all agreed to do it as a group, not only for Ballet West, but what we thought was for ballet. We’re not doing this show for the thousands of people that know and love ballet. We’re doing this show for the millions of people that know nothing about ballet. Is it necessarily about the art? No, but it is about dancers and dancers’ lives. I’ve heard so many things from positive to negative, but what I love is that we’re giving a face to what dancers’ lives are like and what they go through to people that would never know. I’m really pleased that we did it. Was it hard? It was so freakin’ hard. I can’t tell you how awful it was to have cameras in our faces practically 24/7. Dancers would have cameras coming to their houses after rehearsals. It was so hard, but we think still that it was worth it. Was everything exactly as we wanted it? No. I would’ve loved more dance. It is what it is. For all those people saying “why isn’t there more dance?” “Why are you using cheesy music over it”? People don’t realize that reality shows are done on a shoestring budget. The Prokofiev Estate, for ‘Cinderella’, is one of the most expensive to get. A lot of times the producers couldn’t afford to buy that much music. Plus on top of that, to use the actual choreography for clips more than a certain amount of seconds, they had to negotiate and pay for the Ashton choreography to be seen. I can deal with whatever the fallout is as long as the dancers look good in rehearsals and class and performances, I was fine. Even if the clips are short or of personal lives or partying or one too many body shots…whatever it is, Seriously! Really people, you had to do that on camera?

You forget that some of them are just 21-years-old.

Right? Vicki, I maintain we were worse when we were that age. We didn’t talk about it. We didn’t know what planet we were on, but by morning we were in class. If these people say you can go into their personal lives, then you can go there. I try to stay out of my dancer’s personal lives. Can I just tell ya, the real drama that was going on in our company during that time…well, the drama on t.v. pales in comparison to what was really happening. What you see on t.v. is 100% real, but there were things going on that were way more scandalous. 

Will there be a Season 3?

I have no idea. I’m not 100% sure I want to do a Season 3. This was so exhausting and intense, but on the other hand, if they came to us, we probably would.

Have you noticed an uptick in ticket sales since the show? 

We have. The biggest thing has been what we call the “institutional marketing” part of the company. Ticket sales have seen a bump, but really it’s not about that as much as it’s about our name recognition and about the face we’re giving to ballet in general. Certainly on t.v. the Nielson ratings haven’t been very good for the show. Season 1 wasn’t either. But we’re finding out that we’re the CW Channel’s top trending social media show and the top show for online rerun viewing. That matters for something. Every single night our episodes run, we’re in the top ten tv shows during that time period. Obviously something is right.

I have to mention your scarves. Everyone on Twitter is obsessed with you wearing scarves. They’ve even suggested you create your own line.

That’s hilarious. Everyone is saying “you’re totally doing the Mr. Arpino thing”. I had a terrible cold during the entire filming process. The entire ten weeks they were with us I couldn’t shake this cold. I was always cold. I always had the sniffles. I was always wearing one scarf after another. I found out later that was trending.

Ballet West performs at the Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress Pkwy., Friday-Sunday, Oct. 4-6. Performance times vary. Tickets are $30-$90; call 800.982.2787 or visit the Auditorium Box Office or buy online at auditoriumtheatre.org.

 

 

 

 

Joffrey’s Russian Masters: Review

Joffrey's Joanna Wozniak in "Le Sacre du Printemps". Photo by Roger Mastroianni.

Russian choreographers don’t do light and fluffy. At least the ones presented in The Joffrey Ballet‘s Russian Masters program don’t. The four works on the bill, which opened last night and runs through Sunday, span nearly a century of dancemaking and represent pure aesthetic dancing to literally dancing oneself to death. Great “Russian masters” Balanchine, Nijinski, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky and Khachaturian were joined by the only living artist represented, San Francisco Ballet’s choreographer in residence, Yuri Possokhov, for an evening of daring, dramatic dancing accompanied by the phenomenal Chicago Philharmonic.

Balanchine’s 1956 Allegro Brilliante opened the program with a dazzling display of pure dance. No story to follow here, just fast feet and sparkling technique. Not surprising, the perky cast, lead by the lovely April Daly and Dylan Gutierriez, studied or danced at places that have a heavy Balanchine/neoclassical influence in their rep: Washington Ballet, San Francisco Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet and, of course, School of American Ballet. Their solid grasp and love for the style/technique (speedy petite allegro, elongated lines, open arabesque, etc.) really shined. I guess it could be considered light in comparison to the rest of the evening, but definitely not fluffy. Any Balanchine work is hard – understatement – but these dancers were more than up to the task.

A 2012 duet by Possokhov created on Victoria Jaiani and Temur Suluashvili (look, more Russians!) set to an adagio from Spartacus proved a dramatic display obviously focused on Jaiani’s incredibly flexible technical facility. Adagio incorporated interesting inside/out partnering with tricky, twisted grips (some more solid than others) and some trust-inspiring inverted lifts in the couple’s first pas de deux of the night. Possokhov’s Bells, created for Joffrey in 2011, provides another “pure dance” piece, in that there is no story, just his interpretation of the music and some clever creative tweaks on classical technique and traditional Russian folk dance. Slides en pointe, snapping fingers, kisses on each cheek add a fun element to the devilishly difficult choreography. Pas de deuxs by Anastacia Holden and Matthew Adamczyk (flirty), Daly and Fabrice Calmels (sultry), and Jaiani and Suluashvili (passionate) did not disappoint.

The highlight of the evening was the 1987 reconstruction by Millicent Hodson of Vaslav Nijinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring) celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. In an introductory video of the work, Hodson called it “the ballet that changed the course of history”. Its premiere in 1913 famously invoked a riot in Paris due to the discordant music, non-traditional choreography and shocking ending. The dancers stomp, flat-footed with turned in feet, fall to the ground repeatedly wearing pagan villagers costumes complete with painted faces, braids and animal skins. The “Rite” is a virgin sacrifice of “The Chosen One” (danced with haunting brilliance by Joanna Wozniak) where she must dance until she dies. The women of the clan offer her up as the weakest link and leave her alone to be encircled by the men, who oversee her fate. (Thanks ladies!) Wozniak stands center stage with her head tilted, palms out, feet turned in, still and staring at the audience for what seems like forever only to suddenly burst into rapid, consecutive jumps…a LOT of them. She eventually drops to the ground and the men lift her dead body to the sky. The End. What an image to finish the night on.

An enormous BRAVO to the Chicago Philharmonic and director Scott Speck for a fantastic evening of music. From the beautiful Khachaturian adagio (which sounded so perfect and like a recorded soundtrack that I had to check to make sure it was live) to the notoriously difficult to play – and to listen to – Stravinsky score, they played everything to perfection.

CDF13 Recap

Joffrey's Victoria Jaiani and Fabrice Calmels in
Tamako Miyazaki and Brooklyn Mack in
Giordano Dance Chicago in
Chicago Human Rhythm Project in
Brooklyn Mack and Tamako Miyazaki in
Hubbard Street Dance Chicago in
Joffrey Ballet in
Joffrey Ballet in
Joffrey Ballet in
Joffrey Ballet in
Joffrey Ballet in
Philadanco in
Hubbard Street's Johnny McMillan and Alice Klock in
Brian Brooks in
Chicago Human Rhythm Project in
 
1/15
 

Last week Chicagoans were treated to five free dance concerts courtesy of the 2013 Chicago Dancing Festival (CDF). For the third year, I was one of CDF’s official bloggers covering the performances. Here’s a recap of the events as well as some awesome performance photos by the lovely Cheryl Mann*.

The Harris at 10! Anniversary Special at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance.

Solitaire – A Game of Dance at the Museum of Contemporary Art/MCA Stage.

Dancing in Chicago at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University.

Celebration of Dance at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park.

Huge THANKS to Lar Lubovitch, Jay Franke, David Herro, Evin Eubanks, The Silverman Group, venues, sponsors and all the artists who shared their beauty and talent. It was another great fest packed full of amazing performances. It is one of my favorite, most exciting, exhausting and inspiring week of the year. I’m looking forward to seeing what they do to top it next year.

*Photo credits: all photos by Cheryl Mann.

1. Joffrey Ballet’s Victoria Jaiani and Fabrice Calmels in “Son of Chamber Symphony.”

2. Tamako Miyazaki and Brooklyn Mack in “Diana and Actaeon” pas.

3. Giordano Dance Chicago’s Maeghan McHale and Martin Ortiz Tapia in “Two Become Three.”

4. Chicago Human Rhythm Project in “In the Beginning…”.

5. Tamako Miyazaki and Brooklyn Mack in “Diana and Actaeon” pas.

6. Hubbard Street Dance Chicago dancers Jesse Bechard, Johnny McMillan and David Schultz in “Casi-Casa”.

7. Joffrey Ballet in “Episode 31″.

8. Joffrey Ballet in “Interplay”.

9 & 10. Joffrey Ballet in “Episode 31″.

11. Joffrey Ballet dancers John Mark Giragosian and Anastacia Holden in “Tarantella”.

12. Philadanco in “Wake Up”.

13. Hubbard Street Dance Chicago dancers Johnny McMillan and Alice Klock in “Little mortal jump”.

14. Brian Brooks in “I’m Going to Explode”.

15. Chicago Human Rhythm Project in “In the Beginning…”.

CDF13: Dancing in Chicago

Lar Lubovitch Dance Company in "Transparent Things". Photo by Rose Eichenbaum.

A crowd of 2,200 people came to the Auditorium Theatre Thursday night for another free performance in the Chicago Dancing Festival (CDF). If you were not one of those people, I’m truly sorry. Dancing in Chicago, featuring all-Chicago companies plus CDF co-founder and Chicago native Lar Lubonitch’s New York-based troupe, was one of the best nights of dance I’ve seen – and I’ve seen A LOT of really good dance. From flamenco to a flirty pas de deux, Picasso to vacuum cleaners, the evening had it all.

I’ve never heard or said the word amazing so much in one night. In fact, that word is still swirling in my head as I think about the performance, but is it accurate? Let’s see. Dictionary.com defines the word amazing as “causing great surprise or sudden wonder” -yep. Or “to astonish greatly” – check. Synonyms include: “astound, dumfound, stun, flabbergast” – ditto.

Ensemble Español Spanish Dance Theater started the show with their stunning full-company Bolero (1993). Set to Ravel’s 17-minute masterpiece of the same title, this epic work by artistic director Dame Libby Komaiko gradually fills the stage with red dresses, shawls, fans, tradition and passion. I’ve taken class from Dame Libby and while the flamenco movements seem simple, I assure you they are more difficult than they look. I could’ve done without the large Picasso projections across the backdrop. They were distracting and took attention away from the dancing. Bolero also closes the Celebration of Dance performance tonight at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park.

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago astounded in two excerpts from Master Choreographer Mats Ek’s Casi Casa (2009). A brief cameo by the “hat man” (Quinn Wharton) lead to a moving male trio danced by Jesse Bechard, Johnny McMillan and David Schultz. Next the ladies danced a demented jig with vacuum cleaners and delighted the audience with their despair for the household chore. (You can see Casi this October in their Fall Series at the Harris Theatre.) Act One ended with Balanchine’s perky Tarantella pas (1964) danced by Joffrey Ballet dancers Anastacia Holden and John Mark Giragosian. This dynamic duo had the audience dumbfounded with their speedy turns and grand jumps. Holden lights up the theater with her smile, while Giragosian played the sassy pirate.

Lar Lubovitch Dance Company opened Act Two with Transparent Things accompanied on stage by the lovely Bryant Park Quartet.  Lead by the joyful, jester-like Attila Joey Csiki, this wondrous work by Lubovitch was inspired by Picasso’s Saltimbanques painting depicting a group of street performers. The ebb and flow and circular structure of Lubovitch’s movement that I love was on full display here. The four-section piece, although based in modern technique, read like a story ballet. The third section ended with the performers “falling asleep” amid the musicians creating a terrific tableau with Csiki’s head resting on the cello.

Closing the show was a truly inspired pairing of the Joffrey Ballet with contemporary Swedish choreographer Alex Ekman. Thanks Lar! (This CDF commission will also appear in Joffrey’s Contemporary Choreographers program at the Auditorium next February.) Joffrey went way outside their comfort zone in Episode 31 and to say it paid off is a huge understatement. The dancers really went for it and they blew the roof off (or, at least, the walls). This astonishing undertaking had dancers decked out in rad Eurpoean-style school uniforms and incorporated ballet, tap, modern, yelling, coughing, flopping, a video intro and a hodgepodge of props thrown in for good measure. At one point, the side walls or “Reducing Panels” of the proscenium flew out (Flabbergasted!), creating an even larger deconstructed set for the dancers to play on. And they had a blast. A strong, if long, duet by Derrick Agnoletti and Aaron Rogers held focus in the middle as white-faced dancers looked on. A lone dancer (Dylan Gutierrez) opens and closes the piece by turning on and then off a light bulb set downstage left.  Throughout the work, he slowly walks one loop around the stage watching the events unfold. I’m sure it was tough to not participate in the craziness happening on stage, but the work wouldn’t have been the same without that character. The reaction from the audience was incredible with the ovation overflowing into the lobby. It was an incredible way to finish off another great night of dance. Bravo!

The entire evening was, in a word, amazing.

CDF13 Sneak Peek: Alexander Ekman’s “Episode 31″

Choreographer Alexander Ekman. Photo by Urban Joren.

I stopped by to watch rehearsal earlier this month as the Joffrey Ballet gets ready for the Chicago premiere of Alexander Ekman‘s Episode 31 this week at the Chicago Dancing Festival (CDF). A CDF13 commission, the work was originally created for students at the Juilliard School in 2011 and incorporates a multi media/video element at the beginning of the piece. The young Swedish choreographer also had a commissioned work in last year’s festival. Giordano Dance Chicago performed his humorous relationship duet Two Becomes Three in CDF12 and will perform it again at CDF13.

On a sunny Friday afternoon, 28 Joffrey dancers headed out to film the into video and danced in the street, on the Brown line, across the Clark Street bridge, on the steps of the Vietnam Memorial Park under Wacker, under the “Bean” and in Crown Fountain. Clapping, stomping and yelling accompanied the choreography and caught a number of people off guard. A group of students gave the dancers an impromptu cheer to thank them and one woman waiting for her train said, “It’s better than the muggers on the Red Line”. Gotta love Chicagoans.

A few weeks later, back in the studio, the dancers prepped for a run-thru of Episode 31. The studio had random props (an empty lamp stand, tennis balls, a wooden box) and strips of marley strewn about the floor. I asked one dancer, “What’s this all about?” His reply, “Joffrey being Hubbard Street.” While it might not be in Hubbard’s rep, this piece is way more their style than what you normally see from the Joffrey. It’s outside their comfort zone. For some, I’d say way out. One girl stays in pointe shoes, randomly bourree-ing throughout the chaos. Most are in jazz shoes. One dancer comes out and does a quick, intense tap solo. Two men perform a loosely balletic, post-modern duet while a poem is read. The dancers drop suddenly to the floor and convulse like they are being electrocuted (frying bacon, anyone?), while a lone dancer slowly circles the stage, taking it all in.

Joffrey dancers in Crown Fountain at Millennium Park. Photo courtesy of The Joffrey Ballet.

Oh, and there is some coughing and sneezing. Yeah, not your typical Joffrey. Artistic Director Ashley Wheater is embracing the difference and think it will only enhance their artistry. “The way have to move in 31, the way they have to use their spine to instigate the movement…if they would take that into classical ballet, then ballet becomes that much more of an interesting, organic form as opposed to being two-dimensional and a little bit flat” he said. “It will be very fun to see how people respond to it.”

Episode 31 will also appear in Joffrey’s Winter program next February at the Auditorium Theatre.

The Joffrey Ballet performs Alexander Ekman’s “Episode 31″ at the Chicago Dancing Festival on Thursday, Aug. 22 at 7:30 pm at the Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress Pkwy. The performance is SOLD OUT, but any available stand-by tickets will be released at 7:15 pm.

For more information on the Chicago Dancing Festival, visit www.chicagodancingfestival.com.

 

Dancer Spotlight: Abigail Simon, Dance For Life

Dancer Abigail Simon. Photo by Gina Uhlmann.

This Saturday, Aug. 18, marks the annual dance performance, Dance For Life, that raises money and awareness for HIV/AIDS prevention. Proceeds from this year’s benefit will go to the AIDS Foundation of Chicago, the Dancer’s Fund and Chicago House. Always a highlight of the show are two world premiere finales, Act I by Harrison McEldowney and Jeremy Plummer/C5 and an Act II finale by Randy Duncan. Participating companies include DanceWorks Chicago, Giordano Dance Chicago, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, River North Dance Chicago and Thodos Dance Chicago. Also performing this weekend are independent artists Mauro Villanueva and Abigail Simon.

Simon, 27, was born in New York to a director/actor father and an opera singer mother. The family was bi-coastal spending time split between NY and Los Angeles, where she started dancing at age three. At seven, back in NYC, she studied for three years at Ballet Hispanico and at ten, was accepted to the School of American Ballet (SAB), where she studied for ten years. She danced with American Ballet Theatre‘s second company (ABT II) for two years and with the main company for another two years. “I learned so much there,” she said. “I knew that because I came from SAB and because I hadn’t had much classical training that I needed to go to a smaller company to get my wings.” Joffrey was holding auditions in NYC, she auditioned and spent the next seven years dancing with them here in Chicago.

Some may recognize her from her extremely perky performances as Clara in The Nutcracker, but some of her favorite roles from her time at Joffrey are the virtuoso pas Balanchine’s Tarantella and Valencienne in Ronald Hynd’s The Merry Widow. Simon has only performed in Dance for Life one other time when she was part of Harrison McEldowney’s finale in 2011. This year, she partners with former Joffrey dancer Villanueva for the pas de deux from Le Corsaire, a gala favorite. “We’re excited,” Simon said. “It’s pure classical. It’s got tricks!”

Simon recently left Joffrey to pursue a freelance career. “I’m going to miss that family feel and being on the road,” she said, “but when I told them I was leaving, it felt like the chains coming off. You’ve got to trust your instincts and follow your heart.” So far, she’s kept busy dancing with Ballet Next, coaching students for the Youth America Grand Prix, modeling for Bloch and Revolution Dancewear. She has modeling gigs set with Capezio and Custom Barre and auditioned for Christopher Wheeldon’s new Broadway project An American in Paris. She’s also up for a lead role in an upcoming movie with actress Sean Young set to film next year in Venice, Italy. (Rumor has it people affiliated with the film will be at the show on Saturday. Perhaps if we clap extra loud, she’ll get the part!)

Simon said it is easier to find consistent work as a freelance dancer in New York, so she and her boyfriend are getting a place there too and will be splitting their time. “I’m excited,” she said. “I’m very open. It took me a couple of years to figure out, but if you’re positive and open to change, good things can happen. Just get on the horse and start riding. I’m so happy.”

Dance for Life at the Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress Pkwy., Saturday, Aug. 17 at 8 pm. Tickets for the performance only are $50-$75.

A pre-performance gala reception will be held in the International Ballroom of the Hilton Chicago, 720 S. Michigan Ave., at 5 pm. Gala tickets (which include a ticket to the performance) are $200-$500.

For more information, call 312-922-5812 or visit danceforlifechicago.com.