Joffrey’s Fabrice Calmels on being Othello

Joffrey Ballet's Fabrice Calmels and April Daly in "Othello". Photo by Herbert Migdoll.

At 6’6″ and 216 lbs, this 32-year-old Joffrey Ballet dancer stands out on stage…or anywhere. In 2009, landing the lead role in Lar Lubovitch’s Othello solidified him as a star. “It’s the ultimate role,” said Fabrice Calmels*. This week he revises this life-changing role as Joffrey presents the three-act ballet for a two-week run at the Auditorium Theatre before it is retired from the active repertory.

Calmels grew up outside Paris, France and began dancing at age three at a small school in Magnanville. By 10, he was studying at the Paris Opera Ballet School and by 16 things really began to change. “I became very tall and it became an issue,” he told me over tea last week. “They told me I wouldn’t do very well in the company, that I wouldn’t be dancing very much.” He came to the States to study and dance at The Rock School in Philadelphia, then traveled across the country auditioning. After a year dancing with Boston Ballet II, he accepted a spot with Joffrey in 2002. He’s now finishing his 11th season here in Chicago.

Being plagued with a back injury (two bulging discs) for almost a year hasn’t slowed him down much. He’s hard at work preparing for the Othello run, bulking up and building stamina. Calmels spoke with RB about dancing this signature role.

You’re almost a week before opening. What was your schedule like today?

We’ve been very meticulously working on the first act now for a few weeks trying to really get all the dancers to understand Lar Lubovitch’s style. Lar has a very specific style that’s very circular and grounded. When you’re dealing with younger dancers who’ve been training in mostly ballet, they’re up, up, up and he wants down, down, down. To get his style ingrained in your brain and to really feel confident takes a while. When you understand, it becomes easier. The second act came together really quick. Now we’re working on the third act. Today we ran the first and second act…not right away. We ran one, then had notes and then the second act and notes. I think tomorrow we’ll run all three acts and start getting momentum, because we need it.

This role made you a big star here. What are you doing to take it to the next level?

I follow different training. I want my body to be very strong and tense. I need that frame to be really solid, so I don’t hurt myself. I needed to gain weight. In a long run, you tend to lose weight because you’re so tired and overburning. I bulk up to become the character, one, and so I have the structure that I can handle the ballet. I’m working out a lot more. I’m working out my legs more. I run more. I do like ten miles every other day to build stamina in my legs. The last production my upper body was strong, but by the middle of the third act, my legs were burning. In terms of character, I want to completely submerge myself in the character and be able to be the character through the three acts. My goal this time is to stay in character, even though there’s intermissions, and see where it leads to. I want to be able to produce that all the way through. The character and the role is as important as the dancing. Otherwise, you lose the audience very quickly. They want to hear the story, they want to care, they want to hate you, the want to feel emotion. What will make a huge difference is what reads. It’s not a battement. It’s the emotion and the acting.

What does dancing the role of Othello mean to you?

The role Othello is really magic. It’s magic. I saw “Othello” when I was younger. Desmond (Richardson)…he’s a legend. There aren’t many that have done the role. To be asked to do it, at first it was a lot of weight. It’s huge. I feel really fulfilled. Thank you Lar. He’s a master to create such a piece. It’s a difficult role physically. It’s tense. It’s a marathon. You have to be powerful all the way to the end. 

You’re dancing with April Daly again. Do you find you’ve evolve as partners in these roles?

Of course. There’s the experience. The second shot. It’s the big problem in ballet, you get that one first shot. Now we can look back and see that we were able to do it, but the first time, it was a challenge for us. They were big roles for us. I think we were taking it a little bit too tense even though it was a good run. It was a huge risk for the Joffrey and it was a big deal. The second time around, we know we can deliver. We know what to do. We know how people reacted the first time, so we can do better. It can only go up. She knows she can trust me.

Are you nervous? Do you get nervous?

I’m a perfectionist. When I do well, I expect to do better. When I don’t get this, sometimes it really pisses me off. I want consistency. I hate roller coaster seasons. I hate roller coaster performances. I think they are the worst. I want to deliver great and above. That’s my only concern. It’s myself. I want to have always great, better, better.

Joffrey Ballet presents Lar Lubovitch’s Othello at the Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress Pkwy. Wednesday, April 24 – Sunday, May 5. Tickets are $31-$152. Call 800.982.2787 or visit joffrey.org/othello.

*Calmels performance schedule:

Wednesday, April 24 at 7:30 pm

Friday, April 26 at 7:30 pm

Saturday, April 27 at 7:30 pm

Saturday, May 4 at 2 pm

Sunday, May 5 at 2 pm

Joffrey Ballet: American Legends preview

Joffrey dancers Jeraldine Mendoza & Dylan Gutierrez. Photo by Dave Frieddman.

Tomorrow night begins Joffrey Ballet‘s two-week run of American Legends at the Auditorium Theatre. Rehearsals were in full swing last Friday when I stopped by the studios for a peek. Artistic Director Ashley Wheater and Ballet Master Nicolas Blanc were fine-tuning sections of Jerome Robbins’ Interplay in one studio, while Crista Villella (daughter of Edward Villella, founding director of Miami City Ballet) coached two couples in Twyla Tharp’s Nine Sinatra Songs down the hall. Wheater discusses an awkward prep for a double tour to the knee with dancer John Mark Giragosian before running a killer fouette section multiple times. Villella focuses on tricky handholds in difficult lifts (it’s Twyla, ain’t nothing going to be easy) to the sounds of Sinatra’s theme song My Way.

Robbins’ 1945 work Interplay is a fun, youthful prelude to his masterpiece West Side Story that has major classical ballet moves mixed with cartwheels. Tharp’s ode to ‘Ole Blue Eyes is a series of duets in various stages of romance with costumes by Oscar de la Renta. All American legends. The Chicago premiere of Son of Chamber Symphony by Houston Ballet Artistic Director Stanton Welch (Australian-born, but perhaps an American legend in the making?) takes classic ballet to a new place with deconstructed costumes made to look like inside-out tutus. (I’ve heard they are a bitch to partner in.)  Set all of this to live music by the Chicago Philharmonic, add in a romantic, mystical pas, and you have the makings for a lovely Valentine-timed show.

On opening night dancers Jeraldine Mendoza (21) and Dylan Gutierrez (23), partners on and off stage, have the privilege of dancing Joffrey co-founder Gerald Arpino’s 1962 romantic pas de deux Sea Shadow in honor of what would be his 90th birthday. The duet feels like a rite of passage for the young couple who are quickly rising stars. Mendoza made heads turn in Wayne McGregor’s Infra last season and gained notoriety by winning a scholarship from the Leonore Annenberg Fellowship Fund. Gutierrez made a name for himself stepping in for an injured dancer in Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux for last season’s gala and as “Basilio” in Don Q. He solidified his stature (pun intended, he’s tall!) as a strong Cavalier for opening night of The Nutcracker this season. The two don’t normally dance together and are excited about this opportunity.

The 12-minute pas tells an Ondine-esque story of a man on a beach that falls in love with the idea of a perfect woman. Is she a shadow of the sea? Is she real? Mendoza thinks she’s something more. “I interpret it as I’m a mermaid,” she said. “She’s this mysterious creature that he’s so interested in.” Gutierrez’s take is a little different. “She’s like a fantasy,” he said. “She’s seducing him, but she doesn’t know how. She has as much interest in him as he has in her.” They admit some of the lifts and choreography are difficult, but they are ready for the challenge. In fact, they welcome it. “I think Ashley sees in both of us that we’re hungry and willing to dance,” said Mendoza. “I just love dancing and I want him to totally trust in me.” Gutierrez adds, “We’re people that when the opportunity presents itself, we don’t back away. Every role we’ve gotten, we’ve earned, even though they’ve come quickly. That’s just circumstance. It’s what you do with the shot when you get it. We’ve always delivered.”

The two have dated for over a year and admit that knowing each other so well makes a difference when dancing together and they make an effort to keep a certain distance emotionally on stage. Will falling in love in front of a large audience be a problem? “It’s easy,” said Gutierrez. “I already love her at the beginning of the ballet.”

Gutierrez, with the help of Mendoza (and friend Ruben Harris), started a movement called Young + Cultured. You can follow them on Twitter – @DylanthaVillain, @jeraldineeeee #YoungandCultured.

Joffrey Ballet presents American Legends at the Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress Pkwy., Wednesday, Feb. 13 – Sunday, Feb. 24. Performance times vary. Tickets are $31-$152. Call 800.982.2787 or visit ticketmaster.com.


Joffrey’s Nutcracker: Clean, Crisp, Classic

Joffrey Ballet dancers Yoshihisa Arai and Jack Thorpe-Baker battle in "the Nutcracker". Photo by Herbert Migdoll.The Joffrey Ballet‘s production of The Nutcracker still sparkles in its silver anniversary. Opening night, Friday, December 7 at the Auditorium Theatre, marked the 25th year for this particular magical tale choreographed by Joffrey co-founders Robert Joffrey and Gerald Arpino and the magic and choreography still hold up today. With beautiful accompaniment by the Chicago Philharmonic, under the direction of Scott Speck, this version of the holiday ballet boasts clean dancing, crisp choreography and classic storytelling.

Joffrey’s Act One is notable for its speed and depth of action, especially the Party Scene. There is a lot going on in that Victorian living room. Too much for one set of eyes to catch it all, but that also speeds the story along and sweeps you Clara’s world, so you’re ready to fight and dream right along with her. Opening night’s casting had Clara and Fritz almost as tall as their parents, a distraction from the illusion of them really being children. That uneasiness was quickly erased by the dancers commitment and enthusiasm to their characters. Caitlin Meighan was delightful, youthful and vibrant as Clara, her rapid bourrée runs full of excitement. Ricardo Santos was obstinate and ornery as Fritz before taking a star turn as the Snow Prince in the Snow Scene at the end of the Act. His lightening quick jumps and spot-on turn sequences dot the fiendishly fast Arpino choreography amid a flurry of snowflakes. Solid dancing from the entire company lets the choreography shine. I know Mr. A. liked things brisk, but the speed of this evening’s performance surely made it the fastest Nutcracker in the Midwest!

Joffrey dancers Dylan Gutierrez and April Daly in "The Nutcracker". Photo by Herbert Migdoll.

Act II transports to us to The Kingdom of Sweets where the dancers took bravuro turns in each variation. Highlights were Amber Neumann as the sassy Spanish Chocolate, the pristinely perfect Marzipan Shepherdesses (Jeraldine Mendoza, Catherine Minor and Jenny Winton) as well as Kara Zimmerman and Elizabeth Hansen as the lead flowers in Waltz. Always a crowd pleaser, the Russian Nougats (Jacqueline Moscicke, Derrick Agnoletti, Yoshihisa Arai and John Mark Giragosian) did not disappoint. Arpino’s Waltz continues to be an all-time favorite for me, however, this year incorporated some costume updates that marred the visual cohesiveness of the dance. The Sugar Plum Fairy (April Daly) and her Cavalier (Dylan Gutierrez) raised the bar with strong, stellar performances. Daly, as fresh and lovely as her month’s namesake, lit the stage with dazzling effervescence, exquisite extensions and beautiful balances. Gutierrez continues to come into his own in lead roles, establishing himself as a solid, sure partner and delivering a clean, commanding variation. These two definitely proved the saying ‘save the best for last’.

The Joffrey Ballet’s The Nutcracker runs through December 27 at the Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress Pkwy. Tickets are $31-$132. Call 800.982.2787 or visit www.ticketmaster.com.

 

Joffrey Goes Deep

Joffrey Ballet dancers in James Kudelka's "Pretty BALLET". Photo by Herbert Migdoll.

“To express your human spirit is a beautiful thing,” Ashley Wheater said in a pre-taped, pre-show video last night before the opening curtain of The Joffrey Ballet‘s fall program at the Auditorium Theatre. As artistic director of the company, he’s tasked with creating an environment for the dancers and audience to grow, learn and thrive. With Human Landscapes, he succeeded immeasurably. The three works on the program span nine decades and range from minimalist German expressionism to modern contemporary ballet and pushed the dancers and audience beyond their comfort zones with resounding success. The Chicago Philharmonic, under the direction of Joffrey Musical Director Scott Speck, added pitch perfect timbre to the contemplative tone of the evening.

As the curtain opens on Jirí Kylián’s Forgotten Land the dancers all face upstage looking out over a dark, but beautiful set designed by John F. Macfarlane, inspired in part by an Edvard Munch painting of women on a beach. The sound of wind, which is actually Kylián blowing into a microphone, alludes to turbulent times and the turmoil of loss.  Couples in muted colors (black, red, gray, biege, pink and white) ebb and flow in duets, trios and sextets to music from British composer Benjamin Britten. Each color has its own mood and tempo for movement. A beautiful trio of women end the piece on a somber note.

James Kudelka’s Pretty BALLET, orginally created for the Joffrey dancers in 2010, elicited audible wonder from the audience with its opening tableau. amidst a white fog, Miguel Angel Blanco holds Victoria Jaiani in a horizontal overhead lift as if she’s a puppet waiting to be set free. The long, white tulle skirts on the women are a nod to classical “white” ballets, and aside from a lovely pas de deux by Jaiani and Blanco (where Jaiani, again puppet-like, exits walking en pointe as if a blind or in a trance), that’s all that is pretty here. Women run and circle like demented Wilis, while men march across the stage with forceful battements and fisted hands. Kudelka (on video) said that “ballet is going through an interestingly rough time”. His take in Pretty BALLET shows that ballet doesn’t have to be pretty as long as it’s good – and this is, although the group sections weren’t as tight as in 2010 and could use some cleaning.

Joffrey Ballet dancers Fabrice Calmels and Anastacia Holden in Kurt Jooss' "The Green Table". Photo by Herbert Migdoll.

The most exciting work on the program was Kurt Jooss’ 1932 anti-war ballet The Green Table: A Dance of Death in Eight Scenes. A green table surrounded by “the Gentlemen in Black”, diplomats and politicians, argue about the prospect of going to war. The answer comes as the ten “men” pull out pistols (loaded with blanks) and fire them into the air. In the following six scenes “Death” – in a stellar performance by Fabrice Calmels – is a foreboding, always present presence. He lurks in the background only to swoop onto a battlefield or village and take life, casually, violently and compassionately. The scene where he takes the life of “The Young Girl”, the wonderful Anastacia Holden, was both heart-wrenching and beautiful. Interwoven through the scenes is the Charlie Chaplin-esque character “The Profiteer”, danced brilliantly by Temur Suluashvili. The ballet ends as it began with another meeting at the table, a nod to seemingly perpetual war. Dancer Erica Lynette Edwards said it best (again, from the video), “stillness speaks volumes”. The moments of stillness, of holding a simple gesture, were the most powerful.

She’s a winner!

Joffrey Ballet's Jeraldine Mendoza & Mauro Villanueva in Edwaard Liang's "Age of Innocence". Photo by Herbert Migdoll.

It was announced last week that Joffrey Ballet dancer Jeraldine Mendoza has been awarded a $50,000 grant from the Leonore Annenberg Fellowhsip Fund.  Mendoza, 20, is the first performing artist in Chicago to receive this award. Originally from San Francisco, CA, she trained from an early age under the tutelage of Galina Alexandrova at the City Ballet School and was the first American female dancer to graduate from the Bolshoi Ballet Academy (now the Moscow State Academy of Choreography).

Mendoza, in her first season with the Joffrey, made an impression with her break out performances in Wayne McGregor’s Infra and a duet in Edwaard Liang’s Age of Innocence.  We chatted Friday evening via text as she was wrapping up rehearsals for Vaslav Nijinsky’s  Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring) and a world premiere by Stanton Welch at Joffrey Tower.  It’s my first texterview!

Tell me how you got the award.  Did you have to apply? Did someone nominate you?

CCC (Christoper Clinton Conway, Executive Director) and Ashley (Wheater, Artistic Director) nominated me and, I think, sent in a letter of recommendation, along with my application, which included a bio, photos, a video of me dancing and a three-page essay explaining how it would benefit my career and future goals.

What does wining this mean for you – for your career?

Winning this award is a true honor and I feel a great amount of flattery.  To be given something like this by my first professional company and at a young age is amazing and I’m grateful!  For my career? It will help me improve my dancing both in technique and expressiveness.  There is still yet so much to more to learn and this grant will allow me to do so.  Plus, it looks really great on my resume!

What are your career goals (companies, dream roles)?

My career goal is to soon be a lead in a prestigious classical or contemporary ballet.  The Joffrey hopes to do “Romeo and Juliet” in the very near future and it would be amazing to be cast as Juliet.  But my absolute dream, dream role is Kitri in “Don Quixote”, which was my first professional program here at the Joffrey and where I was also cast to do Queen of the Dryads…so, almost getting the lead!  There’s something about that music and ballet that screams classics, and I love the classical ballet classics.

What are you going to do with $50K?

With this amazing grant, I plan on traveling this summer.  I plan on going back to San Francisco for two weeks and take classes with my teacher Galina Alexandrova.  Then, I plan on flying to Moscow/St. Petersburg to take some classes there and watch some performances, also try to find out more about possibly taking some courses of how to become a ballet teacher and achieve a teacher’s degree from the Bolshoi Ballet Academy.  Then, I’ll head to London, where I will request from Freed to customize a pointe shoe for me.  I can’t wait for my adventures!

Congratulations to Jeraldine for this well-deserved award.  Perhaps there is a Juliet in her future?

Joffrey Enthralls with Spring Desire

Joffrey Ballet dancers in Edwaard Liang's
Joffrey Ballet dancers in Edwaard Liang's
Joffrey Ballet's Fabrice Calmels & Victoria Jaiani in Edwaard Liang's
Joffrey Ballet's Fabrice Calmels & Victoria Jaiani in Edwaard Liang's
Joffrey Ballet's Fabrice Calmels & Victoria Jaiani in Edwaard Liang's
Joffrey Ballet's Fabrice Calmels & Victoria Jaiani in Edwaard Liang's
Joffrey Ballet's April Daly & Miguel Blanco in Jerome Robbins'
Joffrey Ballet's April Daly & Miguel Blance in Jerome Robbins'
Joffrey Ballet's April Daly & Miguel Blanco in Jerome Robbins'
Joffrey Ballet's Christine Rocas & Mauro Villanueva in Jerome Robbins'
Joffrey Ballet's Victoria Jaiani & Fabrice Calmels in Jerome Robbins'
Joffrey Ballet's Christine Rocas & Rory Hohenstein in Val Caniparoli's
Joffrey Ballet's Joanna Wozniak & Matthew Adamczyk in Val Caniparoli's
Joffrey Ballet's Joanna Wozniak & Matthew Adamczyk in Val Caniparoli's
Joffrey Ballet's Joanna Wozniak & Matthew Adamczyk in Val Caniparoli's
Joffrey Ballet's John Mark Giragosian & Yumelia Garcia in Val Caniparoli's
Joffrey's Ballet's Lucas Segovia in Val Caniparoli's
Joffrey Ballet's Lucas Segovia in Val Caniparoli's
Joffrey Ballet's Rory Hohenstein in Val Caniparoli's
Joffrey Ballet's Rory Hohenstein in Val Caniparoli's
Joffrey Ballet's Jeraldine Mendoza & Mauro Villanueva in Edwaard Liang's
 
1/22
 

All photography by Herbert Migdoll.

Joffrey Ballet‘s Spring Desire program, which opened Wednesday evening and runs through May 6th, lured the audience in with romantic notions, then turned up the heat with stunning displays of technical bravado and elite gracefulness.  This talented group of dancers ends the season on a high note with an impressive, progressive rep tackled and another stellar world premiere, Val Caniparoli’s Incantations.  This new work, set to music of the same title by Russian composer Alexandre Rabinovitch-Barakovsky, was a study in constant motion threading quick masterful feats (huge jumps, multiple turns and tricky partnering) with a zen-like through-line of lead couple Joanna Wozniak and Matthew Adamczyk.  Their calmness in execution of difficult partnering differed from the frenetic energy surrounding them culminating in the ending pas de deux (gorgeous!) that consolidated light and energy directly on them in ever-shrinking  revolving spirals.   Caniparoli goes against the norm by ending the multi-sectioned work on a somber calming note.  After the “shot-out-of-a-cannon” start, the audience lulled into a tantric swirl of beauty.  He takes a common jete and inverts and arm or places a hand behind the head to make it seem new.  Pirouettes ending with a swivel of the head add an edge and remind of Forsythe.  Congrats to the entire cast, choreographer, sets/costume designer (Sandra Woodall) and lighting designer (Lucy Carter) are due.

Leading the program was Edwaard Liang’s Age of Innocence originally choreographed for the company in 2008.  The large group piece inspired by the novels of Jane Austen started off a big shaky with timing and formation being a bit off, but made up for it with some stellar dancing in the smaller sections.  Jeraldine Mendoza showed that she can hold her own with the big guns in a fearless duet with Mauro Villanueva.  (She was also a stand out in Wayne McGregor’s Infra earlier this season.)  The men’s section – literally titled The Men – showed off the virtuoso talents of Raul Casasola, Aaron Rogers, Ricardo Santos and Temue Suluashvili in a spectacular game of one-upmanship.  It should be no surprise that the pas de deux by Victoria Jaiani and Fabrice Calmels (a staple for galas) was a luscious lesson in stunning lifts and exquisite partnering.  She flies across the stage at him and flings herself backward into his arms, open and vulnerable like a resting butterfly only to be pressed to the sky by her adonis of a partner.  They make everything look simple.  Simply beautiful.

Sandwiched between the two larger works was Jerome Robbins’ In The Night.  Created in 1970, it features three couples in separate pas de deux representing differing stages of love.  With live accompaniment by long-time Joffrey collaborator pianist Paul James Lewis, six of Joffrey’s top dancers transported the theater to a by-gone era.  Christine Rocas and Villaneuva, along with Jaiani and Calmels offered soft, romantic duets with a more fiery pas in between danced by April Daly and Miguel Angel Blanco.  This was Blanco’s first performance since an achilles injury took him out last season requiring two surgeries.  It was great to see him back strong and handsome.  While Robbins’ is a master (and West Side Story is my all-time favorite movie), compared to the other, more contemporary ballets on the program, In The Night seemed a bit boring.

For ticket and performance information call 800.982.2787 or visit joffrey.org/spring.

Bringing the Heat

Joffrey dancers Christine Rocas & Rory Hohenstein in William Forsythe's "In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated". Photo by Herbert Migdoll.

In a pre-show video at opening night of Joffrey Ballet‘s Winter Fire program, artistic director Ashley Wheater says, “This company is eclectic and diverse, the repertory should reflect that”.  The three works presented from international contemporary choreographic stars William Forsythe, Christopher Wheeldon and Wayne McGregor were eclectic, diverse and showed the current company of dancers in a new light.  A big, hot spotlight.  This show reminded me of the Joffrey I fell in love with years ago.  A company that always pushed boundaries with challenging, interesting new works.  A company that made you sit up and ask,”What is happening on stage?”…in a good way.

This program pushed the dancers to a new level, challenging technique and complacency.  They rose to the challenge – they were hot!  The hottest of them all was Rory Hohenstein.  He hasn’t been featured much in his first season with the company (aside from a stand out solo at Dance For Life last August), but wow, keep your eyes on this one.  Last night, he was on fire.  A fierce presence in every piece, Hohenstein showed off his partnering skills, flexibility and attitude with every flick of his wrist, penché pitch and swing of his head.  Paired with Victoria Jaiani in two of the three pieces, he held his own with the dancer that has become the unequivocal star of the company (“All stars/No stars”? I’m not so sure that’s the motto here anymore).

Forsythe’s In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated featured these two in dazzling duets that were so intricate and hyper-extended you wondered how they got through them without being tied in a knot.  Jaiani’s incredible capacity for extension and impossibly thin frame punctuated the dark, downlit stage.  Similar in build and flexibility, Christine Rocas – let’s call them the bendy/flexy twins – showed her stuff alongside a strong cast.  There were some extraordinary things happening on the sidelines, particularly with April Daly, Amber Neumann, Anastacia Holden and Ricardo Santos that unfortunately got lost with so many things going on at once.  Also, the two lead females (Jaiani and Rocas) were supple and strong in the partnering, but seemed timid on their own.  I spotted Chicago Dancing Festival‘s Jay Franke and David Herro in the audience, with Mayor Emanuel and family.  Hint: this would look great on the Pritzker Pavilion stage in August! Yes for the Fest?

Joffrey dancer John Mark Giragosian in Wayne McGregor's "Infra". Photo by Herbert Migdoll.

The LED projections of figures walking displayed above the dancers in Wayne McGregor’s Infra was distracting at first, but became part of the movement theme happening below.  Inspired in part by the 2005 London bombings, McGregor takes the every day action of going to and from work and turns into an emotionally charged romp set to a cyber techno beat by Max Richter.  You could see a hint Forsythe’s influence at work here.  Again, a strong ensemble cast featuring virtuoso turns by all.  Amber Neumann showed her acting chops with a mental melt down center stage.  A large cast of extras walked across the stage sweeping her off with them alluding to the fact that life goes on.  Jaiani and Hohenstein end the work with another eye-popping duet.

Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain was the mid-show palette cleanser offering a softer break from the hard-hitting opening and closing numbers.  The music, Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel (which can make me weepy within the first three notes), was brought to life with accompaniment by Paul James Lewis, Paul Zafer and Carol Lahti.  A stellar cast of Jaiani, Hohenstein, Daly, Matthew Adamczyk, Fabrice Calmels and Valerie Robin added maturity and nuance to the work that was a company premiere in 2010.

Joffrey dancers Victoria Jaiani & Fabrice Calmels in Christopher Wheeldon's "After the Rain". Photo by Herbert Migdoll.

The duet by Jaiani and Calmels, which was stunning last season, was one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen on stage (aside, perhaps, from the Act II pas in Giselle).  What once had a breathtaking romantic feel, like how a young girl dreams her first time in love will be, evolved into a heartbreaking, lifelong love shifting in need.  For me, it took on a she’s-dying-and-he’s-taking-care of-her/Dying Swan vibe.  Whatever the impetus, it works.  As the donor’s rose to their feet in ovation, you could sense the many wallets falling open asking simply “how much?”.

 

Tear It Apart

Joffrey dancers Victoria Jaiani & Fabrice Calmels in William Forsythe's "In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated". Photo by Herbert Migdoll.

“Just music, head, hands,” he says to the dancers.  It’s Monday morning and the Joffrey Ballet dancers are ready for a run-through of William Forsythe’s 1987 work, In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated.  They’ve learned all the steps and had two days off over the weekend.  Some dancers have been sick, so répétiteur Glen Tuggle tells them to take it easy.  “Mark it, but always do head and hands.”  Even marking, you can see the difficulty of the choreography.  The intricate hand grips, the off-center leans, the speed.  This 22-minute abstract piece pushes dancers to their limits and then asks them to go one step more. Stretch their technique to the limit, or “tear it apart”.

Tuggle, currently the Ballet Master/Teacher with Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo, has danced with Harkness Ballet (disbanded 1975), Zurich Opera, Stuttgart Ballet and Frankfurt Ballet (disbanded 2004).  He met William (Bill) Forsythe while in Stuttgart at the age of 22.  Forsythe had just started to choreograph.  Fast forward 23 years and Tuggle has the enjoyable task of teaching/setting Foysythe works around the world.  Having danced Middle for numerous years, he is intimately familiar with the work.  Originally created for the Paris Opera Ballet, Forsythe cast a young Sylvie Guillem in one of the lead roles and made her a star.  I sat down with Tuggle at the Joffrey Tower to discuss the famous work and working with our home town company.

How is it working with the Joffrey dancers?

Wonderful! I’ve been having a great time.  We’ve all been having a great time. I set ‘Middle’ in 17 days. I know it, of course, but for the dancers to learn it that fast is amazing. 

What is the most difficult thing about teaching it?

In ‘Middle’, we take the classical language and stretch it – tear it apart. Some of the classic lines…you see them, but then they go to a further degree and you don’t recognize them anymore.  I think the hardest thing about teaching it is helping the dancers understand how far they can go.  Giving them enough confidence in themselves to be comfortable doing that.

How do you do that?

I find most of my work, whether it’s setting ‘Middle’ or the other ballets I set for Forsythe or teaching class, is to care for the dancers…let them know that I believe in them, that I care for them.  It’s a dialogue we have together as a teacher or rehearsal director or coach. It’s quite intimate. I find one of the most interesting parts of my job is the psychological aspect of working with dancers either individually or as a group.  It takes a lot of thought to help them understand how far they can go and to trust themselves.  I’ve worked with many dancers who’ve been damaged by the schools they went to and they hear “No” way too often in their career.  I learned from some of the most influential people in ballet over the last 30 years that the use of language is extremely important when working with dancers.  You try not to use too many negatives.  There is always a way of saying things without “No” being in it.  Especially if you see a dancer who is already not confident.  Even if they have the everything, the beauty, the body, the technique…they don’t actually believe what they see.  You have to really convince them that they are beautiful.

Why do you enjoy setting this particular work?

It’s always so fulfilling for me, even after 23 years of working with ‘Middle’, because the dancers have such a great time and you’re introducing them to a world they aren’t familiar with in Bill’s works. He says, “Be where you are.”  If you’re not where you want to be, dance and be where you are.  Technically he’ll let them go for something really difficult, because they’re just going to walk out of it.  So if it works, you can say, it really worked tonight, but if it doesn’t work, no one will know. The audience won’t know. You’re not usually asked to do that.  I’ve seen some phenomenal things happen in ‘Middle’, where the people themselves couldn’t believe they did it. 

Is it just an abstract dance or is there meaning behind it? What is the audience supposed to take away?

I think he just wants them to be stimulated by it and see the degree and the level of dancing that’s possible when one is given the opportunity and given the freedom to tear it apart.  There is a lot of freedom in ‘Middle’. The last pas de deux (which is just phenomenal), he said it’s like you’re in a disco and just tearing it apart.  It’s so technically so difficult, because of the speed. 

Also on the program, Christopher Wheeldon’s beautiful After the Rain, which made its Joffrey premiere in 2010 and Wayne McGregor’s Infra, inspired in part by the 2005 London subway bombings.  Joffrey will be the first company to perform the work outside the Royal Ballet, where it premiered in 2008.

Joffrey Ballet presents Winter Fire – Feb 15 – 26

The Auditorium Theatre, 50 E Congress

Tickets are $25 – $149.  Call 800.982.2787 or visit ticketmaster.com