The trill of the piano. The squeak of pointe shoes moving across the wooden floor. The controlled breathing of the dancers as they complete graceful arabesques. I committed it all to memory as I sat against a curtained mirror in the rehearsal room, watching the Joffrey Ballet company prepare for their upcoming show, La Bayadère.
It's the first time in recorded history that Marius Petipa's classic ballet will be performed in Chicago. A tale of star-crossed lovers set in exotic India, the show has something for everyone: a slain tiger, snake charmers, opium-infused dreams, and intrigue. Yet the century-old ballet did not come without its own set of challenges, as choreographer Stanton Welch shared with me before rehearsal.
"A hundred years ago," he said, "stories moved at a slower pace than they do now. Male dancers didn't perform at the same level as female dancers did. I've tried to collect the most authentic pieces of the show that I could find, while keeping the story moving along quickly enough to captivate modern audiences. Of course, today the male dancers work as hard as the women."
Welch, who is the artistic director of the Houston Ballet, looked on as the women took to the floor to rehearse "The Kingdom of the Shades", a pivotal moment in Act III and a scene so famous it is often performed on its own. Their tutus pulled over leotards and leg warmers, the dancers began a slow, otherworldly repetition of arabesques, dancing ever closer to where we sat against the wall. As they danced, an instructor cried, "Breathe!" and I realized that I hadn't been breathing either.
"It's so simple," Welch explained when I asked him what makes the scene so famous. "It's like Shakespeare. Why is Romeo and Juliet still so famous? There are some stories that have a theatrical punch. Watching a sea of women descend onto the stage like angels, moving in simple, detailed ways... it still gives me goosebumps. If you love classical dance you cannot help but be moved by it."
Historically, "The Kingdom of the Shades" established many of the things we immediately associate with the genre: dancers in white tutus, moving gracefully to the music in unison. La Bayadère is the spiritual predecessor of ballets like The Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake and The Nutcracker. It's the first in a classical canon, and performing it builds a ballet company.
"The Joffrey is growing into a larger, more classically oriented company," remarked Welch. "Performing La Bayadère is a necessary part of that growth. Chicago is a huge, important, famous city, and it deserves ballet of that level."
La Bayadère will run from October 16th to October 27th at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University. Tickets are available on The Joffrey Ballet's website.
Photographs by Christopher Duggan.
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