The Joffrey Ballet: A Forward-Thinking Company Continues to Push Boundaries
As the new Artistic Advisor for Dance, I’m excited to lead the dance direction of Michigan Opera Theatre and continue to bring some of the world’s best dance companies to the Detroit Opera House stage. This Nov. 2-3, we’re thrilled to present a company that’s particularly close to my heart, The Joffrey Ballet.
I served as the Executive Director of The Joffrey from 2001 to 2008, and with this program, Beyond the Shore, Detroit audiences will experience three incredible pieces that truly represent the broad spectrum of styles danced by The Joffrey, ranging from classical to contemporary ballet.
When The Joffrey was formed in 1956, it had very humble beginnings. Its legendary first tour included six dancers in a borrowed station wagon pulling a small U-Haul trailer. The dancers took turns driving, each of them responsible for packing and unpacking, cleaning and pressing their own costumes, warming-up and performing in unorthodox spaces such as high school gymnasiums without proper dance floors. Earning the moniker of “The Johnny Appleseed of dance,” the young company took ballet into remote areas to introduce new audiences to the art form.
As the company continued to develop under the artistic direction of founder Robert Joffrey, it carved out a unique niche in the New York dance arena. American Ballet Theatre was known for dancing the classics; New York City Ballet was dancing George Balanchine’s repertoire and developing the Balanchine style of neoclassical ballet. The Joffrey, however, was introducing American audiences to the works of European choreographers Sir Frederick Ashton and John Cranko and reconstructing and reviving “lost” ballets like Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and Vaslav Nijinsky’s The Rite of Spring (1913). At the same time, it was pushing the envelope with many “firsts” such as commissioning modern dance choreographer Twyla Tharp to create her first piece on a ballet company – Deuce Coupe (1973) – to the music of The Beach Boys. Another groundbreaking project for The Joffrey was the creation of Billboards (1973), a full-length program of contemporary ballet performed to the music of Prince.
Artistic Director Robert Joffrey passed away in 1988 and was succeeded by co-founder and chief choreographer Gerald Arpino. The Joffrey moved from New York City to Chicago in 1995 and has been under the artistic direction of Ashley Wheater since 2007.
The mixed-repertoire that the company will bring to Detroit is a testament to The Joffrey’s commitment to diverse dance styles, reflective of both the expected and the unexpected. It features three dynamic young choreographers from Europe with works that pay homage to the lavish classical productions of the past while also exploring the unchartered territory of the future.
It opens with Liam Scarlett’s sensual Vespertine, a sumptuous ode to the Baroque period. Dancers dressed in flowy maroon costumes move under a sky of chandeliers, dancing with the lights themselves to intricate violin compositions.
Nicolás Blanc’s mesmerizing Beyond the Shore, from which the program is named, literally takes audiences to another world, six to be exact. Composed to the music of electronic music composer Mason Bates, dancers travel through six distinct landscapes that range from under the sea to a mysterious desert to outer space, featuring original Houston recordings of the astronauts during the first moon landing in 1969.
The program concludes with Alexander Ekman’s self-descriptive Joy. Dancers clad in nude costumes explore what it means to be joyful, with playful, quirky movements that spread the feeling to the audience.
Whether you are new to The Joffrey or a long-time fan, Michigan Opera Theatre’s presentation of Beyond the Shore is a perfect way to experience The Joffrey Ballet at its finest.
Tickets available at https://michiganopera.org/season-schedule/joffrey-ballet/.
By Jon Teeuwissen, Michigan Opera Theatre Artistic Advisor for Dance