Not every dancer is asked to perform barefoot in one piece, rise en pointe in another, and also be prepared to hang from a trapeze from time to time. But for members of The Joffrey Ballet, where the repertoire ranges from the classical to the contemporary, versatility is as much a part of the job as the perfect port de bras. As the company concludes its 50th Anniversary Season at the Auditorium Theater this month, its dancers will demonstrate, yet again, how the ability to shift from one style to another sets The Joffrey apart.
Long before The Joffrey settled in Chicago, it had established an international reputation for eclecticism, with a repertoire that ranged from the post-Romantic work of August Bournonville to the postmodernism of William Forsythe. The opportunity to take on such a variety of pieces has stood the Joffrey dancers in good stead. "You can see that in the level of their performance," notes San Francisco-based choreographer Joanna Haigood. "It's influenced by a very rich experience." Haigood, whose Dance for Yal (a swooningly romantic solo for a woman on a swing, set to Edith Piaf's "Et Pourtant") has been part of The Joffrey's rep since 1996, says she is honored to be one of the many artists whose work is included in the company's portfolio. "The company is part of a tradition that embraces a philosophy of diversity."
That diversity is a good part of Maia Wilkins's job satisfaction. "That's why I'm here," says the 15-year veteran. "As an artist, it's great. And I hope it helps the audience discover something new for themselves."
For Wilkins and her colleagues, the breadth of the Joffrey repertoire requires frequent physical adjustments. Historic modern dance pieces, such as Kurt Jooss's antiwar masterwork, The Green Table, are deeply grounded works that demand great strength from a dancer's knees and thighs. Aerial pieces, such as Dance for Yal, require an upper body strength that ballerinas aren't usually asked to possess. "I'll work out for Yal and get these really buff arms," says Wilkins, "and then next season be doing a really classical ballet that needs those willowy little ballerina arms." The physical challenges can leave dancers sore the first few weeks of rehearsal, she admits. But the company keeps physical therapists on hand at rehearsals and before performances to help the dancers stay in peak form and to adjust to the changes demanded by each different ballet.
The Joffrey's spring program is a six-part paean to the passionate, athletic American body in motion. The carefully planned concert starts with Dance for Yal and ascends to a climax with Light Rain, artistic director Gerald Arpino's celebratory, unapologetically sexy and gymnastic ensemble work that has become the company's signature piece.
"The decision of how to order the ballets in an evening is never made lightly," says associate artistic director Adam Sklute. "We take lots of things into account." All the administrative departments of The Joffrey weigh in, and the proposed ballets are analyzed for their production costs, potential to create new donor relationships, and of course, marketability. However, the process starts with the artistic team, composed of Sklute, his co-associate artistic director Cameron Basden, ballet masters Mark Goldweber and Charthel Arthur, and assistant ballet master Willy Shives, all of whom work under Arpino, who founded the company with Robert Joffrey in 1956.
"We make some decisions and sit down with Mr. Arpino to talk them over," says Sklute. "Often he says, 'That's great, go ahead,' but sometimes he says 'What, are you crazy?' The man has very good taste, and he keeps us on the right track."
The company's current engagement revolves around relationships, romance, and sexuality. After opening with Dance for Yal, the program continues with Untitled, in which the performers balance their weight against one another to fashion unusual shapes and generate unexpected locomotion. Created by Pilobolus, whose members appeared on this year's Academy Awards, it's a humorous, Victorian-inspired piece about two women and their suitors. As these two proper ladies promenade around the stage, two men emerge from beneath their voluminous frocks (in the original production, the men were nude, but The Joffrey's family-friendly inclusiveness can't quite countenance the Full Monty).
Arpino casts the battle of the sexes as a boxing match in Valentine (with striped-shirted double bassist Joseph Guastafeste of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra onstage as the referee), while White Widow, from Moses Pendleton and Cynthia Quinn of Momix (and featured in Robert Altman's film, The Company), is a haunting solo for a woman performing on a rope. Skimming the ground, never quite soaring or connecting fully with the earth, the dancer unsuccessfully strives for greater heights, and manages only to swirl endlessly on the rope, her chest arched, her heart facing heavenward. Angelo Badalamenti's moody accompaniment, with lyrics by filmmaker David Lynch, has a repetitive, dreamy bass line that expresses an almost sleepy state of resignation. Caught, one of the most well-known works by the modern dance choreographer David Parsons, is an eye-popping solo for male dancer executed under a strobe light to an electronic score.
Topping things off is Arpino's Light Rain, a work from 1981 that has long been an audience favorite. When the work premiered, it was greeted as a timely expression of the then-current vogue for East-West fusion, but its colorful exoticism and sensuality have proved timeless. The super sexy central pas de deux, which showcases the ballerina's extreme flexibility, always causes a sensation and is often performed on its own for gala events. "Mr. Arpino said he created the ballet for a certain ballerina who he said 'had the most honest pelvis' of any dancer he had ever known," relates The Joffrey's executive director, Jon Teeuwissen.
Wilkins — who remembers being wowed by Light Rain when she first saw it as a scholarship student at the Joffrey School — is delighted to be dancing the pas de deux with her husband, Michael Levine. And her fellow dancers are equally passionate. "When we get ready in the dressing room, we all feel like our part is the best," she says. "Everyone has a little moment that they shine in."