For its pas de deux with the CSO, the Joffrey offers two world premieres

When the Joffrey Ballet performs with the CSO, "it allows people to just focus on the music and the movement," says Ashley Wheater, the Joffrey’s Mary B. Galvin Artistic Director. "You’re just filling the stage with the movement of dance.”

Cheryl Mann

While the Joffrey Ballet presents its own annual high-profile lineup of productions at the Lyric Opera House, the acclaimed company also sometimes ventures across the Chicago area for performances with other presenters and arts organizations.

In that spirit of partnership, the Joffrey made its Orchestra Hall debut on the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s subscription series in spring 2019, performing two works as part of a larger program. “The CSO came to us and said they would love to do something collaborative,” said Ashley Wheater, Joffrey’s Mary B. Galvin Artistic Director. “To be able to do some pieces at Symphony Center outside of our normal subscription venue would be a really great opportunity.”

Those performances went well enough that the CSO and Joffrey are teaming up again Nov. 10-12 for a program led by guest conductor Harry Bicket. In addition to two world-premiere dances performed by the Joffrey with the orchestra providing live accompaniment, it includes music-only renditions of Mozart’s Symphony No. 34 and Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin.

Like the 2019 collaboration, the dancers will share the stage with the orchestra musicians. Because Orchestra Hall is a concert venue and not a traditional theater, there are no scenic drops, and the dancers will not enter and exit from the wings as usual. “It’s very much stripped down, for sure,” Wheater said. “But it allows people to just focus on the music and the movement and not be distracted with other things. In some ways, it can be tricky, because you’re not filling the stage with spectacle. You’re just filling the stage with the movement of dance, which is beautiful.”

Wheater said the company learned some lessons from its first time in Orchestra Hall, one being that it is better to create new works for these collaborations and not try to adapt an existing work to the unconventional space. Both selections that the company will present during these concerts will be world premieres. “They’re pieces that will look great there,” he said, “but, equally, if we do them elsewhere in the future, they’ll work.”

Orchestra officials proposed two works for the ballet collaboration, including a dance suite from Platée, an opera by Jean-Philippe Rameau first performed in 1745 at Versailles as part of a royal wedding celebration. Based on a myth, it revolves around a water nymph who believes that Jupiter, the king of the gods, is in love with her. “It’s such a bizarre story,” Wheater said. “And in a way, it’s a terribly sad story. It’s a little bit of black comedy.”

The ballet for 22 dancers has been choreographed by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, who has created more than 70 works for companies around the world. She is particularly well regarded for her narrative creations, and this ballet will loosely follow the plot of this Baroque-era masterwork. “I love what she has done,” Wheater said of Ochoa’s creation, which is simply titled Platée. “It’s humorous, but it has so much tenderness in it, and it is not mocking the tragedy of the story.”     

While the work will be performed without scenery in this concert setting, the dancers will have costumes appropriate to their characters. “They’re vivid and colorful and whimsical, but there is no set,” Wheater said. “You don’t need the set to understand what is happening.” 

The second piece of music that the CSO proposed was Richard Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll, a symphonic poem for chamber orchestra that the composer wrote as a birthday present for his wife, Cosima, after the 1869 birth of their son. While Platée is “so danceable,” Wheater said, this composition is not so obviously suited to a balletic adaptation. “It’s just a more challenging work, because it is not in separate movements, and it meanders in a beautiful way,” he said. “Knowing who could take that music and make something really beautiful with it was a big question for me.” 

To take on the task, he chose British choreographer Cathy Marston, set to become director of the Zurich Ballet in August 2023. “The result, from what I have seen in the studio, is very beautiful and very touching,” Wheater said. The work, titled Heimat, is not, strictly speaking, narrative, but it is based on the circumstances surrounding the work’s creation, with the five dancers representing Wagner’s family: mother, father, son and two step-daughters. “You definitely feel it when you watch it,” Wheater said. “You feel that is a family, and this moment in their life is idyllic. The parents are so tender with their children. It’s a little slice of a beautiful life.”

When the Joffrey dancers started rehearsing in July, they worked on these two works as well as the repertory the company presented as part of “Beyond Borders,” its fall program at the Civic Opera House. Once that closed on Oct. 23, the focus switched almost exclusively to the CSO bill. “It’s a been very a fruitful and productive time, starting a new season, which I hope is post-COVID,” Wheater said.

Next up are rehearsals for Joffrey’s annual production of The Nutcracker, which will run Dec. 3-27 at the Civic Opera House, and preparations for a Jan. 20-21 concerts in Minneapolis. After that will come a reprisal of Yuri Possokhov’s Anna Karenina, which the company will present Feb. 15-26 at the Civic Opera House and April 5-9 at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C, and an April 19-30 presentation of The Little Mermaid. 

“It is a packed year,” Wheater said.