For the first time in its 58-year history, the Joffrey Ballet dives into Swan Lake.
The Joffrey Ballet’s Dylan Gutierrez and Jeraldine Mendoza perform in a new Degas-inspired Swan Lake at Auditorium Theatre.
Swan Lake has long been a staple of ballet companies around the world, but The Joffrey Ballet—renowned for historic recreations and for championing such contemporary talents as William Forsythe—has never taken a crack at the Tchaikovsky-driven classic. Until now. This season, the company goes all out, mounting the swank, $1.5 million production created by acclaimed British choreographer Christopher Wheeldon. Hailed as one of “the most compelling alternative versions” of the landmark work, Wheeldon’s rendition envelops the action in a Degas-inspired setting, as the imagination of a young dancer rehearsing Swan Lake carries him away from the studio and back again.
Trained at The Royal Ballet School in the UK and a member of the company for two years, Wheeldon might not be where he is today if an injury hadn’t left him laid up in front of the TV. “A commercial came on from Hoover, offering a round-trip ticket to the US upon purchasing a particular model of vacuum. I limped out and bought the vacuum—which I never used—got my ticket, flew to New York, and accidentally got a job at New York City Ballet, where I had arranged to take classes in order to rehab my injured ankle. They were auditioning another boy that day and had assumed I was auditioning as well. It was all a triumphant twist of fate.”
Choreographer Christopher Wheeldon watches a rehearsal for his unconventional staging of Swan Lake in 2011.
After dancing seven years with NYCB, Wheeldon shifted gears to spend his time choreographing for the company. Soon, others came calling, from the Boston Ballet to the Bolshoi (he also launched, then left, his own ensemble, and got burned on Broadway when he did the dances for the ill-fated musical Sweet Smell of Success). “I worked with Chris for years when I was at San Francisco Ballet,” says Joffrey artistic director Ashley Wheater, “and what is so compelling about his work is his inventive use of classical language. And he’s unbelievably musical. What you see unfolding just seems so right to your eyes and your ears.”
The spark igniting Wheeldon’s Swan Lake—commissioned by the Pennsylvania Ballet—was a Degas exhibition in Philadelphia. “I was intrigued at how disarmingly honest he had been about the grittier, sweatier side of ballet in Paris in the late 1800s and how it still is really rather similar to ballet today,” relates Wheeldon. “I was looking for a way to root the fairy tale directly in our backstage world, making the deep imagination of the dancer portraying Siegfried the portal into the fantasy. The performance of Swan Lake and the fantasy he creates in his mind come crashing together; the world of the ballet company and that of this fantasy seem to exist on the same plane.”
Historically the most youthful and commercially savvy of the country’s big ballet companies, the Joffrey might be the last place one would expect to see Swan Lake. And Wheater admits a traditional take on it would probably never find a place in the company’s repertoire. “But I think what Chris has done is so worthwhile, and it’s the right production for us. If we want to keep our art form alive and well, we have to keep honing our skills in the classical language, even if we break away from it in many works.” October 15–26, Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress Parkway, 312-341-2310