Joffrey’s Don Q: Q for Questioning

Derrick Agnoletti & Fabrice Calmels in "Don Quixote". Photo by Herbert Migdoll.

The sets were amazing, the costumes stunning, the integration of video/images imaginative, the score fast and flamboyant, the life-size horse puppet fantastic, the choreography ambitious, the characters lovable, so why am I left with the feeling something was off? Last night’s premiere of? Yuri Possoknov’s version of Don Quixote for the Joffrey Ballet at the Auditorium Theatre had all the elements for a spectacular opening night, but it just didn’t quite get there.? That may be a bit harsh.? It was a wonderful show and sure to be a huge hit with audiences, but some of casting and staging were questionable and at times it seemed more like a full dress run and not up to the bar Joffrey has set for themselves.? The show was held for twenty minutes due to a medical emergency (someone slipped and fell in the lobby), which may have had a negative effect on the dancers.? I should also note that I sat in the third row, which was too close for my taste, and the ballet seemed almost too big for the stage.

Victoria Jaiani as Kitri in "Don Quixote". Photo by Herbert Migdoll.

Let’s start with the good stuff – and there was more than plenty.? First, Victoria Jaiani as Kitri was fantastic as we have come to expect.? Her fiery, flirty interpretation seemed second nature (although she seemed uncharacteristically nervous in parts of Act I) and I assume, growing up in Tbilisi, Georgia, she was practically weened on the part.? Her ridiculous flexibility was on full display particularly in Kitri’s Act I solo with Plisetskaya leaps (named after Maya Plisetskaya who made them famous with the Bolshoi) where she literally kicks the back of her head.? But why was she carrying castanets if she wasn’t playing them?? The Act II wedding pas de deux coda famously has a run of thirty-two fouettes.? Jaiani’s was spot on, even tossing in doubles every third turn in the first half.? From my seat, while watching her turn, I could perfectly see her husband Temur Suluashvili’s face behind her beaming with love and pride.? Jaiani’s partner (hired to replace the injured Miguel Angel Blanco), Cuban guest artist Carlos Quenedit, was charming, charismatic and mui talented, although I kept wondering “who is this guy?”? The program only notes (with an asterisk) that he’s a guest artist.? He was great and would be a lovely addition to the Joffrey family, but why hire a guest artist?

Amber Neumann & Anastacia Holden in "Don Quixote". Photo by Herbert Migdoll.

The other star of the show was the puppet.? Crafted by Von Orthal Puppets, Rocinante, Don Q’s faithful companion was fresh and endearing addition to the cast performed by Shane Urton and Alberto Velazquez.? The creation, nicknamed Otis by the company, only appeared in a few scenes which was a shame.? Free Otis!? More of the horse please.? All of the character parts were perfectly played.? Fabrice Calmels as Don Quixote (dashing, distracted), Derrick Agnoletti as Sancho Panza (delightfully bumbling), Willy Shives as Lorenzo (deliciously daft) and Matthew Adamczyk as Gamache (scene-stealingly silly).? Soloists Amber Neumann and Stacia Holden were stand outs as Kitri’s friends.? The corps — toreadors, seguidillas, dryads and bridesmaids — were outstanding and, aside from Kitri, did most of the dancing.? Two female solo variations beautifully danced by Amber Neumann and Jeraldine Mendoza inserted in the middle of the Act II pas de deux seemed out of place and unnecessary.? Equally perplexing was the need for the character Mercedes, a street dancer (Alexis Polito) who danced in the village with the toreadors.? No offense to Polito who danced a lovely solo amidst daggers ingeniously stuck to the floor with frightening intensity, but I failed to see how her character aided the story line.

Victoria Jaiani & Carlos Quenedit in "Don Quixote". Photo by Herbert Migdoll.

The audience at first seemed timid and unsure of how to react to such a bold and ambitious production.? Case in point:? Kitri and Basilio do these amazing one-handed presage lifts about six times.? The first four are done in pairs and in quick succession separated by supported pirouettes.? Fair enough, the lift might not have been held long enough for them to really see what was going on.? The second two are held for a sustained period of time – long enough for Jaiani to hold, look at audience and shake her tambourine before coming down – with the orchestra (Chicago Sinfonietta) holding for effect.? The first lift…nothin’.? The second, held long enough for Quenedit to carry her? – with one hand! -? across the entire stage.? I laughed out loud before obnoxiously clapping, wondering what it was going to take to get these people going.? Luckily, they came around and were clapping to the music enthusiastically during the finale.? Over all, it was a tremendous undertaking that, once a few kinks are figured out (particularly the long, awkward “pause” in Act II), will delight for the entire two week run.? As Artistic Director Ashley Wheater said last week, “I think the company will grow into it.”? I think they will and hope Don Q will be in Joffrey’s rep for a long, long time.

CDF11 Celebration of Dance

River North Dance Chicago performing "Nine Person Precision Ball Passing". Photo by Cheryl Mann.

Saturday night was beautiful.? The weather, the venue, the dancing.? The perfect night to hold an outdoor, free dance concert for the city of Chicago.? At Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park, Mayor Emanuel took the stage to introduce the final night of the Chicago Dancing Festival (CDF) and vowed to take the now five-day fest up to six days of free dance events next year.? Dubbed a Celebration of Dance, the entire evening was just that.? Some of the best dancers in the country came together to dance works by Kyl?an, Balanchine, Graham and Taylor for the estimated 10,000-12,000 people in attendance.? Even the fabulous Gehry-designed concert venue could not compete with what was happening on the stage.

Ballet West, under the direction of former Joffrey dancer and Ballet Master Adam Sklute, opened the show with Jir? Kyl?an’s Sinfonietta.? This troupe won a Chicago following last year when they performed Balanchine’s Serenade at CDF. ?Program notes declare Sinfonietta is “a celebration of our earthly life” and with joyous jet?s and rousing score, it proved to be a pitch-perfect opener for our celebration.? A black back drop with sparkling lights like stars came clearly into focus when the piece finished just as the sun set and the stars overhead came out.? Timing is everything.? The woman sitting next to me literally jumped out of her seat in excitement as the piece ended.? She seemed embarrassed at first until she realized she wasn’t alone.? This was the first of many mini standing ovations of the evening (most of which were started by the Hubbard Street dancers in the crowd).? River North Dance Chicago (RNDC) followed with Charles Moulton’s post-modern Nine Person Precision Ball Passing.? For the third time this week, RNDC took their places on three tiers to perform the brain-teasing work which has seven minutes of fast ball exchanges in every possible configuration.? It is clear that the dancers have it embedded to memory as they performed it perfectly, even throwing in some sassy faces and attitude.? It’s a fun work that drew giggles and appreciation.? Now if I could only get that pinball-synth score out of my head.

Joffrey Ballet performed George Balanchine’s difficult and folksy ballet Stravinsky Violin Concerto.? The large group piece features two duets (Victoria Jaiani and Temur Suluashvili, Valerie Robin and Fabrice Calmels) to arias mixed in with all male and all female sections.? This work is at times difficult for me (why is she doing inside/out back bends?? why are they making a thumbs up sign and waving at each other?), but it was performed with flair and verve.? With fire engine sirens in the background, Joffrey showed the hometown crowd what it’s made of – strong technique, charisma and love.? (Shout out to Derrick Agnoletti for his fierce pas de chats!) Martha Graham Dance Company took the stage next in Diversion of Angels.? Graham’s trademark pitches and contractions were staples, but with lyrical passes and beautiful lifts mixed in.? Carrie Ellmore-Tallitsch, Ben Schultz and the gorgeous Xiaochuan Xie were stand outs.

Principal dancers Tiler Peck and Gonzalo Garcia from the New York City Ballet (NYCB) wowed the crowd with a stunning performance of Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky Pas De Deux.? The virtuoso duet showed the amazing technique, performing chops and musicality of the dancers.? Peck, aside from one slight bobble en pointe, was impeccable.? Her pointe work, her presence, her extensions, her turns, her playfulness all came together at warp speed. ? I felt like a little girl seeing something so amazing that it changed my life.? (Mommy, I want to be a ballerina!)? I had goosebumps and yes, I was one of the many shouted bravo during bows.? The excitement carried over to the final piece.? The crowd was ready and ?Paul Taylor Dance Company did not disappoint.? Taylor’s Esplanade set to Bach concertos was original inspired by a woman running to catch a bus.? The piece incorporates common human gestures with innovative partnering (a promenade with a woman standing on the man’s stomach), ridiculously fast footwork (Michelle Fleet’s solo was lightening fast!), running passes and a little romance.? The dancers were joyful with smiles on their faces as if they were having the time of their collective lives.? The audience was too.? *Insert full standing ovation here.

Every year, a random bird makes an appearance in the show, flying about the stage above the dancers as if it is so caught up in the moment that it wants to be part of the performance. ? I imagine much of the audience felt exactly the same way.? Just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, it did.? Multiple times.? Every day the festival got better and better and I can honestly say (although I didn’t “get” some pieces) I enjoyed watching every single dance.? Lar Lubovitch, Jay Franke and Evin Eubanks deserve great thanks and kudos for pulling off this hugely successful dance festival.? I wonder how they’re going to top it next year.

Inaugural Post

Ta da!

I’m so excited to get started on this new project — and what a way to start. I recently had the privilege of interviewing acclaimed contemporary choreographer Lar Lubovitch about the upcoming Joffrey Ballet performances of his version of Othello.??To be honest, when I pitched the idea, I was hoping to get to meet with Joffrey dancer Fabrice Calmels, but the Lar angle was too good to resist for my editor (thanks KKH!). Needless to say, I was extremely nervous before the interview, but Mr. Lubovitch was very kind and we had a lovely talk about the making of Othello.

Here is the edited transcript from our talk.

You?ve had an extraordinary career. Do you have a favorite moment/dance?any highlights?
Well?I don?t know that I can choose a highlight. It?s dance?and the freedom to create a dance is in itself a privilege. And to be allowed to do the work that I do?it?s a very unusual thing to make dances. There?s no real reason the world should make a place for it, but I have the privilege of occupying that place.

Why Othello? What drew you to this particular story?
As a subject for a dance? Well, I thought it was a story that could be conveyed in pictures. And because the central characters in the story are such archetypes, and so easily related to by most people. The basic themes of the story are such a common human circumstance. The idea of jealousy as a theme and the physicalizing of that story seemed very possible. Of all the Shakespeare plays it is more depicted by…or known by its action than by its words ? although there are many beautiful words in it. In fact, I didn?t base it on the Shakespeare play. Shakespeare based his play on a story by Giraldi Cinthio, a short story writer of 100 years earlier than Shakespeare?s time. Cinthio based it on legend that was popularly told. So in researching Shakespeare, I found the Cinthio and found that there was a different way to relate the story. Cinthio chose much broader strokes with much more archetypal characters.

I read the Cinthio version yesterday and it kind of scared me.
Oh, that?s amazing!… It?s not easy to find. Then you know it?s very extreme ? and there are only the main four major characters. Shakespeare added many more characters and much more psychological depth. From the Shakespeare version, I picked up the psychological?plumbed the psychological ideas of the characters and thought that could be put into movement.

I saw a PBS interview with Parrish Maynard (the original Iago) and he said that you had given him a book about 5 ways to play Iago. Do you normally, even when you?re creating modern work, rely on literature to work from?
Um, no I don?t. In this particular case, there is so much literature on the subject that there?s plenty of source material and I had the good fortune to find an unusual book called ?The Iago? which expounds upon the five basic motives that have been discussed as to why Iago does what he does. And?it?s almost not necessary to know his motives, but for the person playing that character, it gives them a great deal of background information.

The first live dance performance you saw (@ University of Iowa) ? and inspired you to become a dancer/choreographer ? included Jose Limon?s ?Moor?s Pavane?. Is it synchronicity or just coincidence that you eventually chose to create this ballet?
I think you could call it synchronicity. It wouldn?t be inappropriate. It was one of the first dances I ever saw?and it made the kind of impression that was locked into my mind and I thought there was another way I could approach the idea. Not disrespectfully because (the) ?Moor?s Pavane? ?is one of the great pieces of dance writing of the last century.

Most storybook ballets tend to have female leads, with the men being almost secondary. With Othello, it kind of flips everything. Was it more difficult for you to create a full-length ballet with such strong male leads (Othello, Iago, Cassio) or did it free you up to be able to do more creative things?

I never gave it a second thought. The roles men and women play in dance today are so much less designed to be unequal. And partnership and partnering are such a shared, physical act that the idea of a recessive character being a woman and a dominant character being a man isn?t a consideration anymore.
In this particular case, the central story is about two men, the Iago/Othello conflict and the role of Desdemona and Cassio, the other major, but somewhat peripheral characters are vehicles to which we examine this very strange conflict with Othello.


How different was it to set a full-length ballet as opposed to typically shorter modern pieces that you are used to creating?

It took a great deal more preparation time, of course. And more often than not, I would choreograph a dance of 20 or 30 minutes to an existing score of music. But for this we commissioned a piece of music, so I spent a great deal of time with the composer writing the music ? and prior to that, a great deal of time composing how the time would be spent to give a roadmap to the composer to follow. A storyboard ? where they use in film?where they give the composer a storyboard?so I wrote a storyboard of the entire three acts and then he used that as his guide.

So after you created the storyboard for Elliot (Goldenthal, Oscar-winning composer), then did you?did the music come before the choreography? Or did it all kind of?
Simultaneously, really. Certainly there was a bunch of music before the choreography because we worked for a while before I actually got to the studio, but?once the studio began, more than three quarters of the score was yet to be written, so I would be in the studio every day choreographing what I had received the night before basically. I?d meet Elliott after rehearsal and we?d go at it and go at it ? he usually had some material for me to listen to. He was a night owl. He?d sit up all night preparing a cd as sort of a base version?a basic version of what the music would be like. I?d get that delivered to me in the morning and then I?d choreograph it that day. So it was a kind of ?in the moment? experience.

Then if there were certain images you wanted to create, did you tell him?right here is where I need something?
Yes. It was very specific?when I wrote the storyboard, even dictating how many seconds the scenes would last and what emotions would be conveyed and what physical acts were taking place at that time, so he had a great deal of material with which to illustrate the sound. And in addition, I would work with him and say, ?at this moment, they are doing this, can you get this music to turn a little bit in that direction?? So, it was very ?close encounters? between two creators.

In almost everything I?ve read about your work, the word fluidity comes up. How did you incorporate fluidity into Othello?

Well, that?s a description of the way that my work physically embodies a dancer. My way of creating movement is to try to create movement that has a feeling of inevitability. It means that whatever step has been done, can only produce a natural step out of it ? and a step that must look inevitable, so that the body must easily flow into that next action. And if I?ve accomplished that then the look is very fluid and people have picked up on that and used that word quite a bit. But, more than anything? trying to create a sense of inevitability.

Here in Chicago, we?re familiar with some of your work via Hubbard Street (HSDC) — they have some of your pieces in their repertory. Will our audience recognize some of your movements in the ballet? Are there particular scenes or parts where we?ll be able to recognize, oh that?s definitely a ?Lar? kind of movement?

I don?t know. I don?t think I can be the judge of that. I think I can step only so far outside of myself and everything that comes out of me will probably have an air of me that is irrevocable?so probably it?s there, but I think Othello — to me — looks very different than my other work because of its narrative content. And the?um, the passage of time is dealt with a bit differently because it is not abstract in the sense of a abstract dance to music. There are characters; there?s a narrative, but the story isn?t told in a particularly linear fashion. There are three acts in the dance and each act takes another structure. The structure is based on 19th century ballet ? the way the time is spent, the particular time-honored structure of story dance that I admire very much. I felt that I could take that structure, move it further and use it with a modern language of movement rather than the archaic kind of?(hard to hear — kid yelling)?language of ballet. So I?m not sure, in the long run, that it looks like my work because of these various ideas?

How instrumental was (Joffrey?s Artistic Director) Ashley Wheater in getting you to come restage Othello?
Absolutely 100% — he was the generator of that possibility. I?m very, very grateful to him. It?s a very big dance and therefore a very expense dance, and for Ashley to take the risk on doing something controversial and risky ? particularly at a time when being conservative would be the way to go?is a very uplifting thing and is the correct thing to do. (There?s an) unfortunate move in the arts that when challenges become very?people get very conservative in their art product, so to speak, and the product becomes basically more boring, so the audience begins to drop away. But at a time of very conservative?economic support, it?s a good idea to take risks, so the audience stays engaged and are more willing to support it.

He?s brought back a lot of full-length ballets and classical ballets that we hadn?t?Joffrey hadn?t really done in a long time, so we?re really happy to have Joffrey?to have their base be here. Are you enjoying working with Joffrey dancers?
Very, very much. They?re the top of the heap of dancers in the world. They?re as good as it gets.

What has been challenging or interesting in resetting the ballet on a newer company after so many years of the same companies doing it?
Well, the most wonderful thing is I finally have the opportunity to fix it, basically.

I was going to ask if you changed anything.
I?ve done a lot of altering and additions and subtractions of things that I?ve wanted to do from the time that I finished, but were not possible because of the difficulty of getting a company of this size and the time that it takes to actually improve and revise the work. So there are a lot of things that have been re-examined.

You actually mentioned this earlier and I read it in a New York Times article?you said that when you choreograph you ?look for the next inevitable step?. What is your next inevitable step in your career?
Ah?I hope that it?s to become resident company in Chicago. I?ve had my company in New York for 40 years, 41years now actually, and I?ve wanted for some time to have a home in Chicago for the company as well and to be a bi-city company. And we?re in the early stages of finding a way for it to happen, but certain pieces are falling into place that are beginning to make it look more possible or possibly inevitable.

Good for us. And one, final, silly question: If you were a super hero, what would your super power be?
I?m going to have to think about that.

Well, the obvious health and war answers, but I think given?about what I do at this particular moment that I?d say if I had a super power it would be to cause all human brains to understand that art is not a decoration, its an essential expression of our basic humanity and as indispensable as food.

Well, thank you sir. It?s been such a pleasure.
Thank you.