Joffrey back at the Pillow for 80th year

Friday August 17, 2012

BECKET -- At long last, the esteemed Joffrey Ballet is returning to Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival after an absence of more than half-a-century, a prospect that appears to be delighting officials, both of the company and the festival, although no one seems to know why this reappearance took so long.

"You know, I don't know why it has been so long, to be honest with you," remarked Ashley Wheater, the troupe's artistic director, during a phone conversation one afternoon this week from the Joffrey's headquarters in Chicago.

"When the company was reformed under (Robert) Joffrey, Jacob's Pillow was one of the first venues in its new inception."

Ella Baff, the Pillow's general and artistic director, hailed the Joffrey's engagement, beginning Wednesday evening at 8, as the perfect way to conclude the festival's 80th anniversary season.

"They are one of the most important ballet companies in the world. I think they have contributed a distinguished number of dances to the repertory of the ballet world," she said during a chat last weekend.

"The dancers are absolutely gorgeous; I saw them some months ago, and they are looking great."

Wheater said a visit by the Joffrey first was discussed while he was at the Pillow last summer as a faculty member in the ballet program. "Ella and I started talking about it," he said, "and I'm just thrilled that it has come to fruition."

The occasion also provided a personal homecoming for Wheater, who performed here for a week several years ago with Johan Renvall and the Stars of the American Ballet Theater.

Next week should prove interesting: A world premiere by Stanton Welch, artistic director of the Houston Ballet, is at the top of the Joffrey's agenda, Commissioned by the Joffrey, "Son of Chamber Symphony" is an eponymous work set to the piece composed in 2007 by John Adams.

"I've known Stanton for sometime and have wanted to invite him to choreograph for us," said Wheater, explaining that the dance is in three distinctive movements. "Stanton has really kept the movements very separated.

"It's an abstract ballet, with a stunning piece of music by Adams, and Stanton has tried to show the connection of the music and the movement. There is no narrative as such, and he is using the language of classical ballet in a contemporary form -- it is not pure classical ballet, it's hybridized."

Wheater notes that, as a company, the Joffrey's core is classicism. "We train every day to be really secure, solid technical dancers, which allows the company to embrace many different choreographic ideas and present them at the highest possible level," he said, citing a familiar hallmark of the Joffrey, its eclecticism, both in program-making and in diversity of dances.

"Bells," a dance created in 2011 by Yuri Possokhov, former Bolshoi dancer and resident choreographer of the San Francisco Ballet, is being given its first performance outside Chicago. Set to piano music of one of the choreographer's countrymen, Sergei Rachman inov, "Bells," according to Wheat er, is thoroughly Rus sian in spirit.

"It's an intimate piece, and I think the Pillow is an ideal place to watch it," Wheater said, citing what he called the work's sweeping duets, pas de trois and other movements for the performing group of 10.

"There is a dance for five women, and it has a men's dance, all showing his passion for his homeland. You feel it in the music, and the way that Yuri expressed himself as an artist brought it out in his choreography."

Although the score of "Bells" is for two pianos, Wheater said lack of space for two instruments prevented a live-music collaboration. "It's my passion," he said. "Since I took over the Joffrey we have presented live music in every performance. It's been the mission of my directorship."

Although the Taiwanese-Am erican choreographer Ed waard Liang has said he drew his inspiration from the 19th-century ballrooms of Jane Austin heroines, he calls his 2008 ballet "The Age of Inno cence," which, of course, is the title of one of Edith Wharton's most important novels.

But, as Wheater agrees, the same Victorian spirit is in volved, and those ballrooms filled with brief encounters, in which a glance or touch of the hand could ignite love, longing and frustration, prevailed in both Austin and Wharton country.

The music for this ballet is drawn from two American composers, Philip Glass, with some of his Cello Concerto, and Thomas Newman, a member of a Hollywood film-music dynasty whose work over the years has gathered 10 Oscar nominations.

Wheater, a native of Scot land who entered the school of London's Royal Ballet at age 11, danced with several companies, including, during the 1980s, the Joffrey. He said he was very pleased with the film "Joffrey: Mavericks of Ameri can Dance," which has been screened in theaters around the nation, including the Berk shire Museum's Little Cinema, and in June was released on video.

Beginning with the troupe's original cross-country tour in a borrowed station wagon, the film chronicles the company's triumphs and crises.

"I think it's very important that we document these incredibly important organizations in the United States, the journeys they take, and how dollars for the arts are hard to come by sometimes," Wheater said. "I think it shows how fra gile the arts are, and how im portant they are to our lives."

What: The Joffrey Ballet

Who: Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival

When: Wednesday through Aug. 26. Eves.: Wed.-Sat. 8. Mats.: Sat., Sun. 2

Where: Ted Shawn Theatre, 358 George Carter Road, Becket

Tickets: $70, $65

How: (413) 243-0745;;
at the box office


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