Chicago's Joffrey Ballet will visit Ventura County for the first time.

Joffrey Ballet
Ventura County Star

By Karen Lindell

Joffrey Ballet will embrace past and revel in present in Santa Barbara, Thousand Oaks

Whatever you're into, it probably has a trinity.

Cars?: Detroit's Big Three are General Motors, Ford and Chrysler.

Basketball?: The NBA's most hyped trio consists of the Miami Heat's LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.

And in U.S. ballet circles, the Big Three (arguably) are the New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre and Joffrey Ballet.

Next week, the dance company equivalent of GM (it's an appropriate comparison; dance troupes are notorious for bouncing back despite financial setbacks) will pirouette into the area when the Joffrey Ballet makes its Santa Barbara and Thousand Oaks debuts. The ensemble will take the stage Monday at The Granada in Santa Barbara, then perform March 13 at Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza.

Tom Mitze, director of the Cultural Affairs Department at the Civic Arts Plaza, said he has been "working on getting the Joffrey Ballet for years."

Turbulent times

The Joffrey Ballet has been around a lot longer than the Civic Arts Plaza, SUVs or LeBron James' ego: 55 years.

Founded in 1956, the Joffrey, based at first in New York City and now the pride of Chicago, has been through a tortuous artistic arc: scrappiness, experimentation, popular success, critical praise and scorn, battles with a benefactor, geographic transplantations, and heartbreaking (and hidden) deaths from AIDS in the 1980s.

In that turbulent 55-year history, however, the Joffrey has been led by only three artistic directors. The trinity began with founder Robert Joffrey, who held the job until he died of AIDS in 1988, followed by choreographer and company co-founder Gerald Arpino. Current A.D. Ashley C. Wheater, a former Joffrey dancer and ballet master at the San Francisco Ballet, has been in charge since 2007.

The New York Times' Jennifer Dunning, in a 2005 article marking the Joffrey's 50th birthday, wrote that during the Big Three ballet companies' heyday, American Ballet Theatre "was grand classical ballet in the European mode" and the New York City Ballet, founded by George Balanchine, "captured the speed and style of New York City," while the Joffrey "was the most American of the city's three major classical companies in its embrace of pop culture and its youthfulness." The Joffrey featured not only "rock ballets and Mr. Arpino's fleet-footed, vivid crowd-pleasers but also dances by European choreographers whose work was rarely seen in America."

Wheater is following founder Joffrey's philosophy of respecting tradition while also being not-too-traditional. The company is solid, but edgy — contemporary, classical and experimental all find room in the Joffrey repertoire.

Wheater, in an interview this week from Chicago, said that when he became artistic director four years ago, he was aware of the company's "extraordinary history. It had its very triumphant and bleak times, and the move to Chicago (in 1995) was the saving of the company. People here were determined to make it live and survive, but because they were in survival mode, there were not a lot of new works."

During his tenure, Wheater said, the company has premiered seven or eight pieces, from story-length narratives to shorter, more abstract selections.

"I think I parallel Robert Joffrey in that I believe that to be an eclectic company is to be really exciting — to be able to sit on the edge of many styles and techniques, and to tour and show people what we're doing," he said.

Modern, classical language

The touring group features 32 dancers.

Don't expect a lineup of all-willowy women.

"Robert Joffrey recognized that a true dancer was about many things, not just a certain physical type," Wheater said. "I feel that way too. I want dancers who really, really hear the music, have a personality, and understand the many layers that make a great artist, opposed to someone beautiful who can stand and pose. In this company there's a place for many different types of dancers. We've got a 6-foot-6 male dancer; it's really beautiful to see someone like that move."

The Joffrey's program for the Thousand Oaks and Santa Barbara shows embraces the company's repertoire of yesterday and today, with a few kisses planted for California.

The program will feature four works: "Reflections" and "Sea Shadow" by Arpino; " smile with my heart" by Lar Lubovitch; and "Age of Innocence" by Edwaard Liang.

Wheater said the program "doesn't necessarily have a theme, but lots of people in California have a real love affair with the Joffrey," especially SoCal: The company became bicoastal when it was the resident dance company at the Los Angeles Music Center from 1982-1992.

"Reflections" and "Sea Shadow," Wheater said, pay tribute to the past, and Arpino, who died in 2008. The other two pieces on the bill "are where the company is today."

The program opens with Arpino's "Reflections," which "a lot of people would say is his most beautiful neoclassical work," Wheater said. "Sea Shadow," a pas de deux set to music by Ravel, follows a man who falls in love with a sea nymph.

Lubovitch's " smile with my heart," created in 2002 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Richard Rodgers (Oscar Hammerstein's other composing half), features composer Marvin Laird's "Fantasie on Themes by Richard Rodgers." The ballet is named after a lyric from the refrain of Rodgers and Lorenz Hart's "My Funny Valentine: "you make me smile with your heart."

Liang's "Age of Innocence," with music by Philip Glass and Thomas Newman, was the first piece Wheater commissioned for the Joffrey. "It definitely shows what the Joffrey is today: a versatile, energetic, individualistic company," Wheater said. Choreographer Liang "had read a lot of Jane Austen novels, where if someone wanted to introduce you to someone, it all happened through social dancing. Ed has taken that idea and used the language of classical ballet in a contemporary way."

Wheater refers often to the "language" of dance.

"I don't think the Joffrey is going to roll into town and do 'Sleeping Beauty,' " Wheater said. "We'll leave that to American Ballet Theatre, which can do it to its full glory, and has the right number of dancers. I would like us to be a company always doing new work, but using the language of classical ballet."

Many new works, he explained, contain "a lot of angst, but sometimes it becomes fragmented pieces, not a whole, getting caught between being pseudo-classical and pseudo-contemporary. I don't want to be that. And sometimes contemporary work becomes very thematic, but the themes end up permutating within themselves."

Lure of the west

Wheater said he doesn't know if the Joffrey will ever return to do a California residency, in L.A. or elsewhere, but when the company brought "Cinderella" to Los Angeles last year, shows were sold-out, so "I think the love affair with the Joffrey on the West Coast is still strong."

Recalling his days in San Francisco and dancing with the Joffrey in L.A., Wheater said he has a personal attachment to the Golden State. "I love California," he said. "My partner and I have a farm north of Paso Robles. So our heart is still in California. Hopefully in the next 15-20 years we'll retire there."

Always looking forward but with an eye to the best of the past.