In February, the Pittsburgh Dance Council presented perhaps America's premiere contemporary dance company, Chicago-based Hubbard Street Dance. On March 2 and 3, the Dance Council again pulls from the Windy City, presenting The Joffrey Ballet for two momentous performances at the Benedum Center that launch the company's 50th-anniversary tour.
Not unlike Hubbard Street today, The Joffrey Ballet decades before served as the vanguard of contemporary dance in the U.S., with a repertory of cutting-edge works that defined an era. But the company also featured a number of 20th-century masterworks and firsts for a U.S. company. It was the first ballet company to use a rock 'n' roll score for a ballet and among the first to incorporate multimedia into a production. The Joffrey also pioneered the "mixed bill," an evening of works not thematically related.
A half-century after its founding by the late Robert Joffrey and current artistic director Gerald Arpino, the company is an American icon, known for its stellar repertory of masterworks and American classics.
For the program this weekend, the company will present four works representative of its history, including two bona fide masterworks: George Balanchine's "Apollo" and Kurt Jooss's "The Green Table."
The program opens with 2003's "RUTH, Ricordi Per Due," the last ballet by Arpino, the company's 83-year-old resident choreographer. Commissioned by a company benefactor in honor of her mother, the nine-minute duet set to the music of Tomasso Albinoni was created for, and will be danced by, two of Joffrey's premiere dancers, Maia Wilkins and Willy Shives.
A familiar face to area dance-goers, Shives was a principal dancer with Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre for much of the '90s. This weekend's performances mark the 45-year-old Texan's first return to the city, in a work he describes as "uniquely Arpino with some very tricky partnering in it."
Gleaned from America's first full-performance rock ballet, 1993's highly successful Billboards, Laura Dean's "Sometimes it Snows in April" will take the stage next. The three-movement tour-de-force, set to the music of Prince, is a shining example of the mathematically minded Dean's fascination with geometric pattern and repetition.
"It challenges your stamina as a dancer," says first-year company member Elizabeth Hansen, another PBT alum.
From music royalty to the god of music, the second half of Joffrey's program opens with one of Balanchine's most revered ballets, "Apollo." Created for Diaghliev's Ballet Russes in 1928, the 33-minute ballet set to Igor Stravinsky's "Apollon Musagéte" loosely tells of the young god from birth to his ascension to Mount Olympus. In the ballet, Apollo is visited by three muses (poetry, mime and Terpsichore) who come to dance with him. In creating the largely abstract work, Balanchine shows signs of his now-famous neo-classical style in its infancy.
"The movement style in 'Apollo' feels a bit jazzier than Balanchine's latter works," says seven-year company veteran Valerie Robin, who will dance one of the muse roles this weekend. "It is a beautiful and elegant work."
From the Greeks' mythological heavens to humankind's self-created hell: The final work on the program, Jooss' "The Green Table" (1932), is widely regarded as history's greatest anti-war ballet. Set to F.A. Cohen's score for two pianos, the 36-minute ballet features 16 dancers portraying, among others, diplomats in grotesque masks, peasants, a young soldier and the figure of death, all in a danse macabre in eight scenes.
"The work is a perfect example of early German expressionism," says associate artistic director Adam Sklute. "The ballet has a wonderful economy of movement and simplicity in its approach that is rather staggering in its effect."
The Joffrey's production represents the history of not only the company but of an art form -- a show as delightful as it is profound, showcasing a company that is truly an American original.
The Joffrey Ballet 8 p.m. Fri., March 2 and Sat., March 3. Benedum Center, 719 Liberty Ave., Downtown. $22.50-50.50 (A $75 package includes the Gods and Goddesses after-party on Saturday only). 412-456-6666 or www.pgharts.org