Artist Profile: Joffrey’s Michael Smith

Smith as Drosselmeyer in Joffrey's "Nutcracker". Photo by Herbert Migdoll.

“I’m very thankful,” Michael Smith told me over cocktails this summer.  “The Joffrey chapter of my life has been going on for a while.  I’m lucky because I never really planned on it being this way.”  A Chicago native, he lived for a short time in Gary, Indiana with his teacher/social worker mother before moving back to the city.  That is where he got his first taste of dance at school.  “My grandma would say that I watched The Nutcracker in her living room and just dance around.  She’d say, ‘ok, you need to stop it before you knock something over!'”   Smith, now in his 11th season with the Joffrey Ballet, is finishing this year’s run of Nutcracker performances (only two matinees left!).  This season he’s dancing multiple parts:  a parent in the Party Scene, a soldier, the Mouse King, in snow scene, two parts in Waltz of the Flowers and Russian nougat and Dr. Drosselmeyer, his favorite part.  “There’s nothing like it.  It’s an acting role, but it really gives you a chance to tell the story with Clara and have a great time with the audience,” says Smith.  “You are the storyteller and you get to make all the magic happen.  It’s hard because if it’s not done well, the story is lost.”

Here’s my Q&A with a man that literally grew up within the Joffrey and who I’m happy to call friend.

So, what’s your story?

(Laughing) I’m a child of the 80’s.  Imagination was really pushed with me and my sister.  When I was going to be a freshman in high school, my Mom thought I should audition for this private school…Chicago Academy for the Arts.  I wanted to just go to school and be a teenager, but she convinced me.  I went to the audition and I got in…then I freaked out.  I had no idea what that really meant.  Most kids know that they want to dance and have been dancing since they were three.  For me, it was more like a hobby.  At school. I was taking three hours of ballet, jazz, modern classes and learning about the art form.  It wasn’t until my junior year that I thought maybe I should do this…maybe I should start taking this seriously.

How did you go from hobby to Joffrey?

The secretary of the school told me the Joffrey was looking for boys to fill in the background in The Nutcracker and I was like, “no, I don’t do ballet”…but she convinced me.  The school sent four of us over and we had to take class.  Mr. Arpino came and watched.  The asked me and a friend (David Gombert) to come back and take another class, then asked if we were interested in doing Nutcracker.  So for a few months, we would go to school in the morning, then head over to Joffrey to take company class at 10:00 am.  We were there all day rehearsing.  We did Nutcracker season and started getting to know a few people in the company that we weren’t scared of.  I was terrified of everyone, but Calvin (Kitten).  He’s the cutest little nugget ever.  I was a soldier.  I still am!  I did the same soldier spot for like 12 years. (laughing) That’s sad.  Now, I help teach it.  

Were you hooked?  Was Joffrey it for you?

My goal since my junior year was I want to go to New York.  I’m going to dance for Ailey.  Period – end of story.  My email address used to be Ailey2000!  Being at Joffrey…we were in this fantasy bubble where dance was our life for a few months, it was weird transitioning back into school life again.  Joffrey was starting a new apprentice program for six dancers and asked if we (Smith and Gombert) were interested.  I’d just started taking it seriously, meaning, ok I’m not going to skip my ballet class and go take another modern class.  I knew that I didn’t want to go to college.  I thought ‘you need something.  You can’t be poor!’  I agreed to it and signed the contract.  Literally a week later I got offered a contract with Hubbard Street 2 and had to turn it down.  I graduated in 200 and started the apprenticeship in the fall.

Over the years, how has the company changed?

Technically, the company has always had its technical people in it, but now it is really emphasized.  The company is a lot younger than it used to be.  There’s a huge age gap.  There’s a small group of us that are about to turn 30 and a few at 25, then the babies…19, 20, 21.  Over the years, the emphasis on rep has changed…the things being brought in and what is being demanded of us.  I kind of miss doing some of the historic works.  There’s nothing better than to be choreographed on, being that vehicle to produce art.  At the same time, there’s something very interesting and a lot of growth can happen by doing older, historic works.  I go to do the horse in ‘Parade’.  Who wants to do that?  The experience was amazing.  I miss doing Arpino stuff a little.  I guess that’s a change as well.  I got to dance while he was still alive in his company.  To have that greatly influenced how I viewed and still view dance and this company.  

Do you have a favorite Mr. A story or memory?

Some of my favorite memories are just random moments.  I miss seeing him sitting in front of the room or seeing him in the back giving you a thumbs up or an ‘ok’ sign.  As apprentices, we would get gifts from him every once in a while.  One of them was this huge, oversized knit scarf that,I assume, someone had made for him.  The first couple of years, I only wore it every once in a while, but now it is a saving grace come wintertime.  I need that big, chunky scarf.  I need Mr. A’s scarf.  Getting to dance for him at the opening of the new building (Joffrey Tower), that was a really special moment.  He’d always say, ‘This company is going to have a home.”  To see him walk into that building was such a special time.  His dream just came true.  That was pretty kick ass.

How have you changed?

I’m a lot calmer with age.  Outside of work, I try to be really chill.  In the studio, in my early 20’s, I tried to be a bad ass and talk back.  You’re still trying to figure out who you are at that age and my nature was to be more aggressive about it.  You have to find where you’re going to put your energy.  Life is too short.  I’m here to dance.  I want to be art.  I want to express myself through art.  I want to exchange art and discuss it with other people.  I’m the most senior boy in the company now and I know what it’s like to be that little punk kid in high school.  Now I have all this experience under my belt.  There is nothing more humbling than to have someone new in the company and to go and help them.  I learn things and help teach it to others.  I’ve been here a long time.  I’m dedicated to it.  It’s home to me.  

What have been some of your favorite pieces to perform?

(Jiri) Kylían’s ‘Return to a Strange Land’, hands down.  I got to do it with Maia (Wilkins) and Willy (Shives).   That was beyond a dream come true on so many levels.  Kylían is one of my all-time favorite choreographers.  It just feels good to do his movement.  Having the chance to dance with two people that are such great partners and to be the third in the trio…that’s a lot to live up to. That was a super highlight.  The Pilobulus piece ‘Untitled’, ‘Suite Saint Sans’.  ‘Inner Space’ was three dancers in a 4×4 Plexiglass box.  Loved it!  Everyone wants to go out and be the prince or the lead, but there is something to be gained from doing the more abstract stuff too.  Finding your own story in it or how you can get through this to make it entertaining and find growth within yourself.  You’ve never had to do some self-examination until you’ve been put in a 4×4 box with two other people for seven minutes!  Getting to do one of the stepsisters in ‘Cinderella’ with one of my best friends (Gombert).  We were playing ourselves pretty much only in women’s clothing.  I don’t know if anything that silly will enter my life again.  It was pretty fantastic.  And ‘Nutcracker’ is always something special.  I do love it.  It’s the one time of year where you are performing constantly.  It’s like, should I even take this make-up off? I’m going to be right back.

You also have talents in a vast range of hobbies:  photography, videography, choreography and teaching.  What are your goals?

To take whatever comes and see what happens.  When Jessica Lang came and set ‘Crossed’…that was a great experience.  Really inspiring.  You truly just have to be the vessel and let the art come through you.  She told me to never say no to anything.  Go do it and see what happens.  Try to make all these things happen and see what comes out of it.  It was a great piece of advice.  Not that you can’t say no, but if you can do it…why not?  My goal wold be to keep experiencing everything I can possibly experience.  If you allow yourself to be open to just experience it, you’ll learn a lot.  I’ve auditioned for Hubbard Street like five or six times now.  I love them.  I’d love to dance for Hubbard Street.  

Joffrey’s Nutcracker a Sweet Treat!

 
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Time really does fly during the holiday season.  It’s been almost a week since opening night of Joffrey Ballet‘s annual The Nutcracker performance at the Auditorium Theatre and I can’t stop thinking about it (or get the music out of my head!).  Honestly, this is not a new development.  Nothing says Happy Holidays to me more than watching a good version of The Nut and, in my view, Joffrey’s is the best.  Set in 1850s America, Robert Joffrey took a classic German tale and made it ours.  There is so much action happening on stage that even the notoriously boring Party Scene breezes by leaving you wondering what you missed. Derrick Agnoletti as the bratty little Fritz provided comic relief for those not completely enthralled with Clara (Abigail Simon), her Godfather Drosselmeyer (Matthew Adamczyk) and her obsession with the wooden doll that happens to crack nuts.  Once the clock strikes midnight, the action escalates in Clara’s dreams aided with some magic dust from Dr. Drosselmeyer.  (Seriously, what is in that sparkly stuff? I’ll take two please!)  Dolls coming to life, an enormous growing tree, a, epic battle, a first kiss, a beautiful snow fall and a lovely pas de deux: and that’s only Act One!  The audience seemed a bit shy and lulled by the graceful snow pas danced by Victoria Jaiani and Dylan Gutierrez, but finally livened up to applaud during Agnoletti’s spirited dancing as the Snow Prince.

The excitement carried over into Act Two which had each of the divertissements getting rousing approval.  Erica Lynnette Edwards was sassy in the Spanish variation, Arabian showed off Jaiani’s super flexibility, the Russian Nougats’ gravity-defying leaps (as usual) brought down the house, Elizabeth Hansen proved perfectly pristine as the lead Marzipan Shepherdess and Gerald Arpino’s choreography in Waltz of the Flowers is just as gorgeous as the famous music.  The petite Yumelia Garcia as the Sugar Plum Fairy stunned the crowd (and RB!) with a spectacular balance at the end of the Grand pas that lasted at least 10 seconds!    No joke, she stayed perched in first arabesque so long, she missed the next section of choreography, then hurried with her cavalier (Ogulcan Borova) downstage for the dramatic end poses all to cheers and wild applause.

On a somber note before the show, Artistic Director Ashley Wheater dedicated this season’s Nutcracker performances in honor of the city’s former First Lady, Maggie Daley, who was a huge supporter of the arts and served on Joffrey’s Women’s Board.  Daley died last month after a long battle with cancer.

There are 16 performances left – get your tickets now and enjoy this holiday classic ballet.

Joffrey Ballet presents The Nutcracker through Dec 27th

Auditorium Theatre, 50 E Congress, 800.982.2787 or ticketmaster.com

 

HSDC On An Angle

Hubbard Street in "twice (once)" by Terence Marling. Photo by Todd Rosenberg.

Seven members of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago (HSDC) took a corner of the Harris Theater stage with select members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) for the MusicNOW series last night where HSDC Artistic Associate Terry Marling premiered his work to a score written by CSO Mead Composer-in-Residence Anna Clyne.  Clyne, along with her fellow Composer-in-Residence, Mason Bates (cute!) hosted the evening that featured four other musical works by Julia Wolfe, Anthony Cheung, Aaron Jay Kernis, Lee Hyla.  Each work was previewed with a video clip of the composer discussing their process as well as an appearance on stage to answer a question or two from the hosts.  Cellist Kenneth Olsen played brilliantly in four of the five pieces and the petite Cynthia Yeh grabbed my focus with her huge sounds on percussion.  Aside from a three-year stint playing the alto sax, my musical knowledge is fairly limited (music is my brother’s milieu), so I will leave that to the experts and focus on the dance.

With general admission seating it’s always a gamble, but I lucked out and grabbed a great seat down front (not too close) and center.  When the crew rearranged the stage for the final piece, I realized the dancing would be happening on the stage left side and my vision was compromised, unfortunately, by a man with an ENORMOUS head.  Undeterred, I wiggled around and leaned on my friend until I could see the dance space clearly, although at an angle.  With no wings, the black stage walls provided a moody backdrop for the dancers wearing all white.  A door on the back wall with bright light shining in served as the entrance (and numerous exits) for the dancers.  In twice (once), Marling worked with the limited stage space by placing most of the dance on an angle coming from the open door.  The dancers worked off of that angle, replacing each other, entering/exiting through the door, disappearing into the stage left blackness to Clyne’s achingly beautiful score.  He successfully created a feeling of infinity, particularly in a moment where Kellie Epperheimer walked slowly forward on the angle while the other six dancers ran in a moving circle around her.  Another breathtaking moment was with Ana Lopez (always brilliant, her solo work mesmerizing) where Jesse Bechard and David Schultz, who replaced an injured Pablo Piantino, held her feet to the ground while she swayed and arched back like a willow in the wind (pictured above).  The sheer tulle skirts on the women added to the elegiac theme of the music (Clyne wrote it immediately after her mother’s death) and the somber, slow exit out of the door into the light by the dancers extended past the final note, again bringing to mind infinity and beyond.  I’m looking forward to seeing Marling’s choreography reconfigured for the Danc(e)vole performances at the MCA Stage in January.  His keen sense of weight shifts and musical timing shine on the HSDC dancers.

 

CSO’s MusicNOW w/ HSDC

Tonight at the Harris Theater, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) presents another installment of its MusicNOW series and includes a world premiere danced by Hubbard Street Dance Chicago (HSDC).  twice (once), choreographed by HSDC Artistic Associate Terence “Terry” Marling is a work for seven dancers set to a piece of music composed by CSO Composer-in-Residence Anna Clyne.  Clyne wrote Within Her Arms in honor of her mother shortly after her passing.  Played by a 15-piece string ensemble, it is a departure from the acoustic and electro-acoustic sound she normally dabbles in.  Marling, who writes music himself, was immediately in love with the music.  “The music is really emotional,” says Marling.  “It was a daunting, scary start.  There’s the initial fear that music that emotional can overwhelm the choreography, so I had to draw on what I knew of that depth of emotion like the birth of my son.”

The evening also features musical works by Julia Wolfe and Aaron Jay Kernis, with Conductor Christian Macelaru making his MusicNOW debut.  This is the first time HSDC has appeared in the series, although they have collaborated with the CSO before.  Marling wanted to create a geometrically visual stage picture, so he used a combination of math and choreography to create what he calls “a fair view of infinity”.  He started working with the HSDC dancers on the piece over the summer, but with performance and touring schedules found himself short on studio time.  Luckily, he knows the dancers well and they were willing to try anything.  “The artists I work with are wonderful,” says Marling, “and I can always keep making steps.  I’m really happy with how it turned out.”

MusicNOW: Chicago Symphony Orchestra with Hubbard St Dance Chicago, Harris Theater, 205 E. Randolph at 7 pm

Tickets are still available: $22, 312.294.3000, 800.223.7114

Breaking News

Yesterday evening it was announced that Paul Lightfoot is the new Artistic Director at Nederlands Dans Theater, replacing Jim Vincent (former AD at Hubbard Street). Citing severe budget cuts, the NDT site has a short statement about the switch up and notes that Vincent will stay on as an Artistic Adviser through the rest of the 2011-2012 season.

Thoughts?

CDF Opening Gala

Joffrey Ballet's Victoria Jaiani & Temur Suluashvili in White Swan pas. Photo by Cheryl Mann.

Last night was the opening night gala kicking off the fifth year of the Chicago Dancing Festival (CDF). A short 5-piece program on the MCA Stage was followed by cocktails, a buffet with three ballroom dance couples interspersed upstairs at Puck’s Restaurant and outside on the terrace.  The $250-a-head evening was co-chaired by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who stayed to mingle after the show along with his wife and daughter.  A few short speeches preceded the performance. MCA Director of Performance Programs Peter Taub opened the fest saying, “We are here to celebrate the best of dance from across the country”.  CDF co-founder Jay Franke gave some impressive stats including that in the past five years the festival has presented over 35 companies and over 400 dancers and proudly announced that this year CDF sold out approximately 10,000 seats for this week’s performances.  Franke turned over the mic to Mayor Emanuel, who celebrated his 100th day in office by attending the gala.  The Mayor, a former dancer and huge fan, declared that he wants to double the size of the fest and make sure Chicago is the dance destination for the entire country. He added there are 19 companies performing this week to an estimated 19,000 audience members.  Co-founder Lar Lubovitch said, “One cannot describe dance in words, no matter how eloquent,” but then went on to read the most eloquent essay (written by him) on duets, five of which we were about to see.

HSDC's Penny Saunders & Alejandro Cerrudo in Following the Subtle Current Upstream. Photo by Cheryl Mann.

The program of duets featured choreography from 1895 to present and while they represented divergent styles, there was a through-line of choreographic evolution.  A pristine classical white ballet to a fluid neoclassical ballet with a contemporary twist.  An emotive classic modern offering to a postmodern minimal feat.  Then an avant garde performance art work that evoked musical and choreographic themes from the first duet.  A mini-history of dance in 60 minutes or less…sort of.  Joffrey Ballet‘s husband and wife team, Victoria Jaiani and Temur Suluashvili began with Lev Ivanov’s traditional White Swan pas (1895) from Swan Lake.  On a small, bare stage it is difficult to bring the audience into the magical place that is needed for the dance, but what it lacked in mood and setting was made up for by technique.  Jaiani’s extraordinary extensions and limberness were on full display.  (I’m fairly certain her back is made of a flexible pipe cleaner.)  Just as they disappeared into the wings, Hubbard Street‘s (HSDC) Penny Saunders and Alejandro Cerrudo oozed onto the stage in an excerpt from Alonzo King’s Following the Subtle Current Upstream (2000).  While similar to the previous pas in technique, flexibility and master partnering (and similar promenades in penché), this duet was the opposite in feel.  Fluid, continuous and rich.

Martha Graham's Xiaochuan Xie & Tadej Brdnik in "Snow on the Mesa". Photo by Cheryl Mann.

An excerpt from *Robert Wilsons Snow on the Mesa (1995) brought a display of control and drama with Martha Graham Dance Company dancers Xiaochuan Xie and Tadej Brdnik’s gorgeous interpretation.  Strong, yet delicate with minimal, but heartbreaking gestures, I found myself holding my breath through the piece.  The all white costuming and loving touches again reminded me of the first duet.  Brian Brooks Moving Company changed things up with a male duet titled MOTOR (2010).  Clad only in black briefs, Brooks and David Scarantino embarked on a thigh-killing, synchronized chugging spree.  Set to a driving beat with ominous overtones, MOTOR had the men hopping, jumping and chugging, foward, backward, in changing formations around the stage.  It was an exercise in stamina and focus.  There were more than a few moments, however, that took me back to the swan theme.  Precise chugs in attitude devánt (four cignets) and chugs in fondue arabesque (white swan corps).  A stripped down off-kilter Swan Lake.

The final piece Compression Piece (Swan Lake) was a commission by Walter Dundervill , created specifically for CDF this year.  If the previous piece was off-kilter, this was Swan Lake on crack!  Dundervill (who Lubovitch said could be ” a lunatic”), along with partner Jennifer Kjos, creates a white landscape of distorted beauty in his choreography (warped fouetté turns and bourré sequences), sets (a fabric installation that serves as back drop and eventually part of the choreography) and costumes (interchangeable pieces – they changed on and off stage – layered from baroque to bridal).  The soundscape featured swan riffs from Tchaikovsky and Saint-Saëns, but funked it up with Diana Ross and Sonic Youth.  This world premiere proved that the black swan has nothing on the white swan when it comes to crazy (in a good way).

Maybe I have Swan Lake on the brain (a strain of avian flu?), but I caught a definite thread of similarity in the pieces.  As if all of the works were distilled from choreography from 120 years ago and ended up being all of these unique moments on stage…and maybe they were.  Example:  Look at the photos on this page.  From very different styles and eras, yet all are an interpretation of a standard supported arabesque.  Technical issues prevented Faye Driscoll from performing on the program as scheduled, but I’m looking forward to seeing it later in the week at the MCA Moves program to see how it would’ve fit into this program.  As it was presented last evening, it was a testament to the brilliant artistic direction of Lubovitch and Franke.

*This has been updated.   I originally had the piece choreographed by Martha Graham.  Oops!

On Her Way

Cecily showing how it's done at the James R. Thompson Center. Photo by Dennis Peralta.

At 16, Cecily Romaynne Shives knows what she wants to do with her life…dance! In fact, she’s known that she wanted to be a dancer since she was 10-years-old. Luckily, she is blessed with strong feet, innate talent and some fantastic genes (her parents are Evie Peña Shives, former ballerina at Tulsa Ballet Theatre and teacher at Chicago Ballet Arts and Willy Shives, former dancer and current Ballet Master at Joffrey Ballet). Add to the mix her love of the art form and spirited determination and you have a young artist ready to learn it all.

Shives gets up at 5:00 am to prepare for her days as an honor student at the Chicago High School for the Arts (ChiArts) where she takes academic classes in the mornings and dance classes at the conservatory in the afternoons. “It’s a very long day,” she says and admits to sometimes doing homework during her commute on the Red Line. Growing up in Pittsburgh, she remembers her first ballet class was actually the family living room where her Mom would teach her terminology. At 2, she got her first taste of studying at a local studio and was hooked, but didn’t get serious in her training until the family moved to Chicago. “My parents gave me a choice to keep dancing and I haven’t regretted the choice I made since,” says Shives.

Right now, she’s in Texas attending an American Ballet Theatre (ABT) summer intensive workshop for a month. She auditioned at the request of a friend (who didn’t want to go alone) and didn’t expect anything to come of it. “All the other girls were twice my height and had so much flexibility,” she recalls. “I was really nervous.” After the initial shock wore off, Shives let the excitement hit her. RB asked her a few questions as she packed for her ABT summer adventure.

What are your goals? Do you want to be a professional ballerina or would you consider other genres?

I want to become a professional dancer when I’m older. I think when dancing professionally you must know about other genres of dance because most companies don’t just have one in the repertoire. I feel that professionals don’t get anywhere unless they are well-rounded at all types of dance. I want to finish college at some point in my life, whether it’s before or after my dance career. I would eventually like to go to law school and follow in my grandfather’s footsteps. I have always been intrigued with the law and standing up for justice.

Which style do you like the most and in which are you the strongest?

I am best at contemporary ballet. I love classical ballet, but like to branch out of that. I love being off my leg and allowing gravity to take its course. Pointe/Variations class has been a lot of fun for me because of my strength on pointe and my understanding of each ballet. At Chiarts, we have learned some of Gerald Arpino’s works and variations from Paquita and Raymonda.

What’s your favorite role danced so far?

Peasant Pas de Deux from Giselle. The first time I performed it I was 12 and it was one of the best experiences of my career. I felt so strong and it improved my self-confidence.

What’s the best advice your parents have given you?

The best thing they told me was to learn every single part whether it was boys or girls. They told me to learn it and write it down, so in case someone is injured I know the part. This has paid off greatly.

Are you proud to be following in their footsteps?

I don’t think I’m exactly following in their footsteps. They both had great careers, but that was their own thing. I want to carve my own way in the dance world. I’m proud to have them as my mentors and I love that I have people who support my decision in becoming an artist.


ACTION!

The U.S. House of Representatives is set to vote on more cuts to the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) this week, however, Congresswoman Louse Slaughter and Congressman Todd Platts (sounds like a heavy metal band, no?), who co-chair the Congressional Arts Caucus have started a “Strike the Last Word” effort  – or pro-forma amendment – in the House in the hopes of securing time to speak or submit a statement before the vote.  Please let your representative(s) know how you feel about arts funding and urge them to join this effort.

For more information on what you can do, go to The Performing Arts Alliance.  Click on “Take Action” on the left of the screen.  On the next page (right-hand side) click “Find Your Representative”.  The site will give you contact information for all of your district reps.   You will find more advocacy info at Dance/USA.org.