Joffrey Ballet returns to the town that helped 'make it'

BY GRACE HAERR | MARCH 05, 2015 5:00 AM

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Every dancer is familiar with an allegro or pirouette turn, but up until 1993, it seems not even the professionals could imagine these elegant movements accompanied by rock music. 

The Joffrey Ballet and pop star Prince exposed the elite world of ballet to an invigorating new work called Billboards, the first “rock ballet” in history — a work that likely would not have come to be without the early support of Hancher.

The long-standing relationship between Hancher and the Joffrey Ballet will be rekindled Saturday in the intimate atmosphere of in North Hall’s Space/Place.

“The audience will find a lot of great energy coming off the stage," said Gerard Charles, the director of artistic operations for the Joffrey Ballet. “It’s a luxury to be that close to the dancers.”

Already close partners, Hancher planned to commission choreographer Frederick Ashton’s Cinderella for Joffrey in the early ’90s, but when the company was unable to secure rights to the show, it looked elsewhere.

Inspired by Joffrey’s performance during the 1991 Los Angeles season, rock performer and composer Prince granted Joffrey rights to his music. It was the push that Gerald Arpino, the choreographer for the Joffrey, needed to create Billboards. 

The abstract piece caught the attention of audiences nationwide. Combining classical ballet choreography with the sounds of classic rock was unheard of, and it all started in Iowa City.

“Joffrey was and continues to be a progressive company that uses forward thinking,”said George De La Peña, the head of the UI Dance Department. “Audience members can always expect first-class product and exciting new work.”

The Joffrey Ballet is nearing its 60th anniversary. The humble beginnings of the dance troupe include a station wagon, some dancers, and enough gasoline to take them across the country to perform.

“Joffrey brought dance to every small town and big city in the nation,” Charles said. “Joffrey Ballet is a real American dance company that performs existing works that everyone knows and brings exciting new dancers to their stage. The program this weekend is a good reflection of that.” 

On Saturday, the Chicago-based group will perform to a mix of musical genres, from classic orchestral music to Johnny Cash. The first two movements, “Son of Chamber Symphony,” mix traditional ballet moves such as those in Swan Lake with contemporary theatricality.

“It is exciting for me that my students will be exposed to one of the best dance companies in the world,” De La Peña said. “Joffrey has done contemporary groundbreaking work.”

The long-distance love between Hancher and Joffrey dates back to 1987, “the year Hancher financially saved the Joffrey,” Hancher Executive Director Charles Swanson said.

Hancher commissioned Joffrey Ballet to resurrect The Nutcracker, and the world première of that version occurred on Hancher’s stage on Dec. 10, 1987. The second act included 60 children dancers from Iowa City.

“An outstanding aspect I celebrate to this day is the importance of diversity of cast and also their sensibility of what a dance body was and should be,” De La Peña said. “Joffrey embraces the performer.”

The ballet continued a successful tour, taking the local dancers to the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and the New York City Lincoln Center. 

Stephanie Henn remembers performing in The Nutcracker when she was just 12 years old. 

“At such a young age, to be thrown into the mix of professional dancers, it felt so glamorous," she said. “We trained with the Joffrey that entire summer; it was a dream come true for me.”

Henn danced on stage at the Kennedy Center for two weeks, averaging two shows a day. 

“I have such an amazing respect now for the arts,” she said. “Being in the theater, watching a performance and having been on the other side, I know how much discipline and hours go into coordinating everything form the music to the lights.”

Today, Joffrey’s resident dancers range from 18 to 34 years old. Their tallest male dancer is 6-6, and their most petite female stands 5 1/2. 

Marianne Marks, the Joffrey head of wardrobe for the past 11 seasons, said the variation among dancers keeps her on her toes.

“Any dancer can be cast in any role at any time,” she said. “That often means in the same program a petite dancer could do the same role as a very tall dancer, but it’s more important that they get to do the role, so we will make a new costume whenever need be because the skill and talent of a dancer matter more than the body type.

“Adding a row of hooks and bars onto a tutu for the costume to be able to fit multiple dancers is very standard. We rig the inside structure whenever we can. For Swan Lake this fall, our girls wore long flamenco-style skirts, and we scalloped the edges to fit.”

In this weekend’s performance, dancers will not be as heavily decorated but instead wear leotards and slippers designed to match the theme of this “wonderfully wild and completely up-to-date kind of piece,” Charles said.

“You interpret the ballet based on what you are seeing,” Marks said. “It’s very important that we interpret what the designers or choreographers want to see. You shouldn’t notice the costume. It is meant to enhance, not detract, from the body of the dancers or the dance itself.”

Joffrey dancers will perform chamber works on Saturday, accentuating their artistry. The performance includes choreography by James Kudelka, Yuri Possokhov, Stanton Welch, Edwaard Liang [cq], and Christopher Wheeldon.

Hancher and Joffrey’s partnership took them on a statewide tour in 2007. They traveled to five communities and did five outdoor performances, visiting Council Bluffs, Cedar Rapids, Des Moines, Muscatine, and Iowa City. 

On June 29, 2007, Joffrey attracted 800 people to the green surrounding Hancher, and in one summer performed for more than 35,000 people across the state, some whom had never seen a ballet.

“It was the greatest outreach event ever. I called it a gift to the state in celebration of Hancher’s 35th anniversary,” Swanson said.

This memorable tour occurred less than a year before the 2008 flood, which destroyed Hancher Auditorium. The new Hancher facility is under construction and is scheduled to open in the fall of 2016.

Despite natural disasters and Joffrey's increasing fame, Swanson said the company members keep Iowa City close to their heart.

“What I love is that Joffrey, even with a new artistic team, new production and management, has still kept that Iowa connection,” he said. “If current employees haven’t experienced it, they have certainly heard about how special the Iowa and Joffrey connection is.”

This connection has endured for nearly 30 years, since Joffrey first performed for Hancher in 1987 — and the three summers following — giving the dancers a venue to stretch their craft and the Iowa City community an opportunity to fall in love with ballet.

“Chocolate can be treated as a dance production,” Charles said. “If you like chocolate, you like chocolate. Once in a while, there might be a filling you aren’t happy with, but in general, it’s all good stuff."

Joffrey Ballet
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. March 8
Where: North Hall’s Space/Place 
Admission: $10 for youth and students, $65 for general public; sold out

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