ARTICLE: Joffrey Ballet brings a program of new dance styles to the Civic Theatre
May 8, 2022
Nicolas Blanc was creating the dance “Under the Trees’ Voices” for the Chicago-based Joffrey Ballet during the height of COVID, when he learned that his grandfather had died.
“Like many other stories, he passed away alone in the hospital, and it was a tragic moment for the family,” said the French choreographer.
“I wanted to honor him by dedicating the piece to him. When I had the chance to go back to France and pray at the cemetery, the 8-year-old son of my cousin did something strange. He picked a little tree, a plant, and put it on his grave. I thought it was my grandfather talking to me and saying go with what you think is right for the piece and that he was watching me from wherever he is now.”
“Under the Trees’ Voices” is one of three original dances included in the upcoming Joffrey Ballet program presented by the La Jolla Music Society.
In unique ways, each of the dances reflects the transition to life after the pandemic.
Blanc’s “Under the Trees’ Voices” was set to Italian composer Ezio Bosso’s Symphony No. 2, a composition Blanc listened to while running along Lake Shore Drive, where the breezes off Lake Michigan rustle the branches of ash and oak trees.
The music is reminiscent of the sounds of nature, beginning with a rushing, repetitive violin melody that summons thoughts of running in a forest while flower buds burst open at the speed of a time-lapse film. The melody climbs the musical scale, building tension before the tempo slows and becomes pensive and lyrical, like the slow drift of falling leaves.
Blanc’s dance was created during a time of longing to be free from isolation, and Bosso, who died in 2020 at age 48 after a long battle with a neurological disease, brings that poignant urgency to the score.
“Bosso was so in tune with me that I thought, this is the score for the new Joffrey work,” said Blanc, who also is the company’s rehearsal director.
“I felt like it needed an extra amount of sensuality and the music dictated that. By choosing Ezio Bosso, I wanted to be in touch with something more emotional, melancholic and nostalgic, but also full of hope.”
Like many dance companies, Joffrey Ballet had to come up with a program to stay solvent during the pandemic and it introduced a digital season to keep dancers on salary. The 28-minute “Under the Trees’ Voices” was first presented online last year as a hybrid, meaning the dance was created for film with the knowledge that it would eventually be performed live.
For Blanc, it meant developing a new way of thinking about staging dance.
Digital ballet directs the viewer’s eye so that the choreographer decides what the audience will see. But Blanc prefers the choreography of a live performance.
It allows viewers to change focus at will and take in an expanded view of the “Under the Tree’s Voices” forest scene, where more than one dozen dancers perform under eight, large gilded leaves that float above their heads.
“You see much less in the digital version,” Blanc said.
“At the beginning of the third movement, dancers are shedding petals on the floor. For the Internet version, you zoom in with the camera onstage with the dancers, but in the live version, the rendering is different. It gives the audience the freedom to catch whatever details they want.”
Creating dance during social distancing rules was challenging because, at one point, only five dancers at a time were allowed in the studio.
The duets in “Voices” were easier to choreograph, Blanc said, because originally, they were performed by real-life couples who live together, so the rule wasn’t applicable.
“It’s really interesting to think about of how I functioned during strict lockdown, when I was stuck at home,” Blanc said.
“I couldn’t really move in my apartment and leap over the sofa, so I refocused my energy in crafting movements and looking at what I could do in sequences. I filmed myself and that helped me a lot. The last moment we have on stage is hopeful, when they all reach toward a canopy of leaves. I wanted to connect the dancers to nature in the way that suggests one element could not live without the other.”
The Joffrey Ballet also will perform two works that pack an emotional punch, one with a sad history and another joyful.
The program includes the late British choreographer Liam Scarlett’s “Vespertine,” a sweeping ballet inspired by the Baroque era and danced under a ceiling of chandeliers. Scarlett died by suicide last year after visiting Chicago in 2019 to set his work on the Joffrey Ballet, right before the pandemic.
Justin Peck’s “The Times Are Racing,” on the other hand, is an upbeat, jazzy work reminiscent of Gene Kelly’s “Singin’ in the Rain” number, with big, sweeping arm movements and soft-shoe dance segments that show off Peck’s fondness for tap-dancing.
Currently the resident choreographer for New York City Ballet, Peck recently choreographed the dance scenes for Steven Spielberg’s adaption of “West Side Story.”
He refers to “The Times Are Racing,” “West Side Story” and his recent work “Partita” as “sneaker ballets.”
“What I have found is that setting a dance in sneakers allows for a different kind of physical weight-carriage,” Peck explained in an email from New York, where he lives with his wife and a baby girl born last year.
“The dancers’ center-of-gravity drops slightly. And the sneakers provide a distinct kind of traction that allows the dancers to expand a bit more fully in certain movements. It is a subtle shift from having the dancers in slippers and pointe shoes, but it helps to distinguish these dances into their own unique style.”
Peck grew up in San Diego and was a student at San Diego’s former California Ballet. His mother, Luisa Peck, was on the board at City Ballet of San Diego.
“The last time I visited was in 2013,” Peck wrote. “I’d love to return in-person. Maybe it means the right project or invitation to get to engage with my hometown community once again.”
La Jolla Music Society presents Joffrey Ballet
When: 8 pm. Saturday. A 7 p.m. prelude interview will be hosted by Molly Puryear.
Where: San Diego Civic Theatre, 1100 Third Ave., downtown
Phone: (858) 459-3728
Luttrell is a freelance writer.