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. 

2014 Chicago Dancing Festival Ticket Release

Chicago Dancing Festival at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion. Photo by Todd Rosenberg.

Hey y’all! It’s that time of year again. Tickets for the 8th annual Chicago Dancing Festival (CDF) will be released this week. Tickets are FREE, but must be reserved.

This year boasts a stellar line-up (as usual) featuring Chicago’s own Hubbard Street Dance Chicago and The Joffrey Ballet, plus Stars of American Ballet, Martha Graham Dance Company, Adam Barruch, The Juilliard School, Pam Tanowitz Dance, Rennie Harris Puremovement and stars of the Washington Ballet.

Tickets for the Wednesday, August 20th program (7 pm) at the Harris Theater will be released tomorrow, July 8th at noon. You can pick them up in person at 205 E. Randolph or reserve over the phone at 312.334.7777. Limit two (2). If you can’t get in-house seats, this performance will also be simulcast live on the outdoor screen at Pritzker Pavilion. Wine + cheese + dance = done.

Tickets for the two Friday, August 22nd performances – 6 and 8 pm – at the MCA Stage will be released Wednesday, July 9th at noon. You can pick them up in person at 220 E. Chicago or via phone at 312.397.4010. Limit two (2).

For the Saturday, August 23rd performance at Pritzker Pavilion (7:30 pm) , you do not need tickets. More wine + cheese + dance = date night! Do it.

 

CRB Takes On the Seasons

Schaaf in rehearsal with dancer Lizzie MacKenzie.

“I feel like I’ve been painting with all the colors in my palette,” said Wade Schaaf, founder and artistic director of Chicago Repertory Ballet (CRB). “As I’ve been creating more and more, I feel like my movement vocabulary is pretty expansive, so I felt really free with this piece to use everything I know.” Schaaf presents the premiere of his one-act, 30-minute The Four Seasons this weekend alongside CRB favorites including his Peoplescape: Juxtaposition; Manuel Vignoulle’s duet In a Box; Jacqueline Stewart’s cheeky One Way; and a tender, personal trio, Of Alice, by Autumn Eckman. “The audience is really going to get a ride.”

For The Four Seasons, Schaaf found his inspiration in the music, using composer Max Richter‘s modern take on Vivaldi. “The Richter version is a little more contemporary and a little more streamlined, applicable to now,” said Schaaf on a quick break before teaching class at Joffrey Tower (#convenient). “I wanted to hone in on the humanity of the piece. To me, the whole thing is about people, which always intrigues me as a choreographer.” He also cites the Thorne Miniature Rooms at the Art Institute as an abstract inspiration. “I feel like we’re watching these little vignettes. The music is set up with three sections per season. I treated each of those sections like the miniatures. It didn’t make sense to look at the picture as a whole, but to look at each individual part.”

CRB’s motto may be “Everyone has a story to tell”, but this new The Four Seasons let’s the audience fill in the blanks. “We’re just watching these scenes from life and together they make the four seasons or life, the four seasons of a person’s life, or even the seasons of a relationship,” Schaaf said. “There’s no set plot. I’m not translating a particular feeling, but you get little elements of a story. I wanted it to look like little moments in people’s lives.”

Chicago Repertory Ballet presents THE FOUR SEASONS: and contemporary works Friday-Sunday, May 9 – 11 at The Biograph Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave. Tickets are $25 ($20 for Saturday matinee); visit: victorygardens.org or call 773.871.3000.

Throwback Thursday: Nut edition #tbt

RB living the part as Snow Queen.

I know The Nutcracker is over, but since it’s been snowing for the past few days, I’m putting up one more pic of me as Snow Queen. Yes, those are snowflakes on my warm up sweater. I lived in that thing for the entire rehearsal periods and performances each time I was SQ. Gotta get in the mood! And there are snowflakes in my crown and my earrings are big snowflakes too. (Shoes by Freed.)

Let it snow!

Throwback Thursday: Nut edition #tbt

RB as Snow Queen w/ Alexei Khimenko.

…where I was the “Snow Queen” for the umpteenth time.  Don’t get me wrong, it was my favorite part and a bit of type casting since I can be…well, icy.

That year my partner was Alexei Khimenko, orginally from Leningrad, but had been dancing for a while in Nashville, TN. Everyone loved Alexei. He was fun, charming and an intuitive and helpful partner. He was SBC’s own Baryshnikov!

He taught us a lot, even some Russian. Most wanted to learn how to count to ten, but I wanted to learn something I could use, so I politely asked him to teach me how to say “F*$# off!”. After laughing, he obliged. Before we went on stage each show for our pas, instead of wishing him “Merde”, I would tell him – lovingly – to “F*$# off”.

In the picture above, I not only certainly have a cramp in my hamstring and back, but I’m pretty sure I’m telling him (through clenched teeth) that my boob was falling out. Photo shoots are a bitch.

Throwback Thursday: Nut edition #tbt

SBC gals post-Nutcracker sometime after electricity was invented.

Oh Nutcracker…and memories.

Pictured: the “Trinas”. One’s husband is in the background (Hi Chad!), one had recently given birth, one was kinda, sorta, not-so-secretly dating my boyfriend (or maybe that came later), and I just had knee surgery. But, we pulled off a great show. Although we did change the entire pas to be on my left leg and I wasn’t a very dainty Sugar Plum – just ask my poor partner (Sorry John).

Good times.

Throwback Thursday: Nut edition #tbt

RB as Snow Queen in "The Nutcracker" with Ben Houk.

That one time where I backhanded my partner in the face on stage. Oopsie daisy.

It was an almost perfect performance. Almost. It was the very end of the pas after we “make it snow” calling the snowflakes on to dance. All that was left was a a back attitude/penche promenade and a lame duck/step over turn into another promenade, then exit. I was stoked because the pas went so well thinking we’d just take it easy and do a few pretty floating turns to finish. My partner was thinking let’s do 15,000 pirouettes and finish with a bang!

I wasn’t ready for the major push off he gave me – add in the fact that I’m not a good turner with spotting issues – and I went all cattywhampus and smacked him in the face hard. We recovered enough to finish, but our slow romantic walk off turned into a grab-the-back-of-the-tutu shove/run exit. Boo.He was pissed.

The rest of Snow Scene went well with a stoic smile etched on my face, but the screw up left a mark on me…and his face.

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.

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.